Review 31 essay: What Are Book Prizes For?

First published in Review 31.

Perhaps we should be grateful there was a winner at all.

In May this year, with the UK chafing under Covid-19 lockdown, the four authors shortlisted for the 2019 Highland Book Prize — led by acclaimed poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie — volunteered to split the £1,000 prize between them, as a collective, ‘as a celebration of life, literature and community’. It was a nice gesture, if you don’t look too hard at the logic, and the authors’ decision to donate the prize money to the Highland Food Bank anyway placed it safely above reproach. It did, however, raise the question of what book prizes are for.

Nature writing — publicly, at least — is a collegial sort of genre, unified (up to a point) by shared opposition to runaway climate change, habitat destruction and mass extinction. Nature writers are, mostly, most of the time, on the same side. Criticism in these circumstances is a tricky business.

In September, it was announced that the teenage writer Dara McAnulty was the winner of the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, the genre’s rough equivalent of the Booker. His book Diary Of A Young Naturalist seemed to push the judging panel close to hysteria: ‘The judges were almost breathless from reading it,’ said chair Julia Bradbury, ‘and would like to call for it to be immediately listed on the national curriculum’.

The announcement was of course greeted with warm applause on social media (where McAnulty’s publisher, the indie Little Toller, had been working double-time at the hype machine) — but this would have been the likely outcome whichever book won. There was never much danger of the decision starting a conversation, to use a maligned phrase; Nature Book Twitter isn’t big on opinion (unlike Conservation Twitter, a larger and far more fraught space). In this, discourse within the genre butts up against the whole idea of literary prizes, which in part exist not only to identify and reward outstanding work but, more fundamentally, to affirm the premise that there is such a thing as outstanding work, as well as good, mediocre and bad work; that critical discrimination is healthy — indeed, necessary — and can be just as much a celebration of life, literature and community as its opposite, the cheerful mulching of all books into one Good Thing.

There are two principal reasons why the Wainwright generates plenty of publicity but not much conversation. One is that creditable collegiality, that sense that even a bad nature book is still a nature book, and therefore means well, and ought to be treated kindly, and given the benefit of the doubt. The other is sales. Of course, all book prizes are marketing tools above all else — no bad thing where the profiles of marginalised writers are being boosted, and hardly a crime even where they’re not. But consider the judging panel of the Wainwright — a broadcaster, a marketing executive, a marketer and publisher, a bookseller, a festival organiser, and only one writer or critic (the brilliant Jessica J. Lee, who is both) — against that of, say, the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, which is overwhelmingly dominated by professional writers and critics. The comparison isn’t meant to denigrate the Wainwright judges (they are all genuinely impressive figures in their own fields, and there’s no reason to doubt their investment in the countryside and the natural world), but only to ask whether the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing really has much to do with writing at all.

Tim Dee’s book Greenery — let’s get this out of the way, yes, it should have won, and I’m still livid about it — didn’t make the Wainwright shortlist. (It was instead, bizarrely, longlisted for the parallel but less prestigious Global Conservation Wainwright Prize, but didn’t make the cut — this prize was awarded to Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald, who then took to Twitter to hammer out a roaringly disproportionate acceptance speech.)

Obviously, one judging decision in isolation can tell us very little, but it seems significant that Dee — a ‘nature writer’ who is as serious about the writing as he is about the nature, and who as a stylist operates on quite a different level to the limp Macfarlanese and thunking edgeland sententiousness of so many of his lauded contemporaries — has never been shortlisted for the Wainwright. It’s not that the prize completely shuts out the literarily adventurous (though the winners tend to be on the safe side); it’s more that, when the most prestigious prize in the sector appears unable or unwilling to recognise and reward good writing for its own sake, the perception of nature writing as literature is diminished.

Announcing the winner this year, Bradbury said that ‘The Diary of a Young Naturalist is a significant nature book — made all the more so because it is Dara McAnulty’s first.’ Does that make it more significant? To McAnulty, sure — but to the rest of us? This doesn’t feel like a grown-up conversation about books (and I don’t think that has anything to do with McAnulty’s age).

Nick Hornby has written that, for children, there are no bad books, only books you don’t want to read. A literary industry without a critical faculty has been infantilised.

Now, we can argue the merits of wide-eyed nature memoirs peddling childlike wonder and neo-Romantic enlightenment — people seem to like them, after all. We can see that the constant outflow of polemical books by environmental journalists is a necessary response to our lurching, out-of-hand world (and may even throw up the odd masterpiece). But we must, I think, retain at least a little faith in nature writing as an art form, independent of any cause or movement, and that goes hand in hand with the need to apply critical rigour; to treat books in this genre with respect, which means treating them, so to speak, like adults.

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