I read a lot of books. I have read a lot of books. I like to think I read widely and across a lot of genres. But I have not read a lot of award-winning books. Why is this – and what am I going to do about it?
In researching this article, I printed myself out a list of the winners and nominees of the Booker and the Orange/Bailey’s prize and the winners of the Costa awards. I settled down with a pink highlighter to mark up what I have read. There is not a lot of pink on the lists. But there are a lot of books that I think I should have read – and others that I would like to read, but have never got around to.
What do I mean by not a lot? Well, I’ve read seven books from the list of Booker winners and nominees – yes, just seven. Of that seven, two are winners (Ghost Road and Wolf Hall), one I studied at A-Level (The Handmaid’s Tale), two have been read in the last month (Mrs Palrey at the Claremont and Loitering with Intent) entirely coincidentally and the remaining two have been read in the last year as well (Good Behaviour and Restoration). You may have noticed from that little list that I have only read two books from the last 20 years of Booker nominees. Now considering that I think of myself as a book person, I’m a bit ashamed of myself.
There are some authors on the list where I have read some of their other works – just not the prize-winning ones, people like Muriel Spark, Nina Bawden, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh and David Lodge. But there are some authors where, despite their reputations and in some cases multiple entries on the list, I haven’t read any of their books – let alone the prize-winning ones. People like Salman Rushdie (although I listened to some of Midnight’s Children when Radio 4 serialised it when I was about 14), Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge and Ian McEwan to name a few. There are some who I have books by on the Kindle waiting to be read – two of this year’s list including the winner – that I haven’t got around to because there’s always something “better” there as well.
So what’s my problem?
Well, I think it’s partly in my head – I think they’re going to be boring and hard-going. My mum used to read the Booker winner every year – a habit she gave up when she got stuck while reading Ben Okri’s Famished Road. I can remember her saying that there was no point in reading something you didn’t enjoy, that she hadn’t enjoyed the last few winners and she wasn’t going to force herself to read them just because they were winners anymore. I think this has stuck with me – I avoid them because they’re award winners or nominees, even if the blurb on the back makes them look interesting – I think it’s a trick.
Now I am starting to get over this – the two nominated books I’ve read in the last month, I’ve enjoyed – and I didn’t know they were nominees when I picked them out and read them. In fact I was surprised when I found out – because they were interesting and funny. I’d also like to thank Virago for their role in this – they keep turning out attractive looking reissues of intelligent (and often funny) women’s fiction. I have half a shelf of their Designer hardbacks – many of which I’ll admit I first picked up because they looked beautiful – and I have a lot of their paperback Modern Classics too. They are widening my horizons.
The other issue – that I can think of anyway – is the size of the to-read pile and the Goodreads challenge, both of which mean I often go for books I know I can read quickly so I can get them off the pile. I leave long books and “difficult” books on the shelf – favouring short ones and “light” fiction.
Writing this has made me feel a bit embarrassed – and very ill-read. So. I’m going to try harder. I’m going to try to do better. I’m going to try to improve my hit rate with prize winners and prize-winning authors. I’ll start by working my way through the books on the to-read pile that are award nominated or written by prize winners. And to make sure that I do do better and read these books that I say I will – I’ll keep you posted too.
Help me on my way by recommending me your favourite prize-winning or award nominated books in the comments below.