The gorgeous dresses, the gleaming smiles, the gushing thank-yous: to all intents and purposes, the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, which took place on Wednesday in Dublin, looked like a fine and starry night out, a flashy black-tie evening to celebrate the brightest and best of Irish literary talent.
The event was televised, with celebrity guest presenters and plenty of the appropriate pomp. A roll-call of fine authors took to the stage to accept their respective awards. John Boyne, Mary Costello and Graham Norton were on hand to be garlanded for their literary works, and a fleet of nominees and book-industry kingmakers sat at white linen-clothed tables to hear their happy speeches.
It all seems indisputably A Good Thing. You can’t complain about such a night, surely, in which Irish people celebrate Irish talent? And yet, behind the beaming faces and wine-quaffing, profiterole-chomping camaraderie, there exists a lingering and persistent unease about the Irish Book Awards. It all boils down to a simple question: has anyone actually read the nominated books?
I ask because, unlike other literary award ceremonies, the Irish Book Awards relies extensively on votes from the public for the doling out of its awards, along with the shadowy, decidedly non-transparent input of what the Book Awards term a “literary academy”, an academy so large (we’re told it has more than 300 members) that it seems impossible to police.
While other award ceremonies pay a dedicated group of panellists to read all the eligible books – asking them to decide first on a longlist, then a shortlist, and then the winners – the Book Awards don’t bother their heads with such troublesome nonsense. Instead, they assemble a nominations list, never neglecting to include celebrities (Brian O’Driscoll and Katie Taylor have both won awards for ghostwritten books), and then more or less ask their nominated authors to go out to bat on social media in the service of their future glory in the Book Awards. Whenever the nominations are announced, my inbox starts to ping with mortified-sounding requests from lesser-known Irish authors, shilling for their books and directing their friends and fans to the Irish Book Awards website where they can vote for them. “It takes just one minute!” one author emailed me recently to say enthusiastically.
Call me an old humbug if you will, a spoilsport intent on turning the stereo off at the party. But nobody in their emails makes mention of actually reading the shortlisted books, or even their own nominated book. This isn’t a literary competition, it’s a popularity contest. It’s about how many friends you have on Facebook, how many followers you have on Twitter, how many begging emails you might be willing to send to acquaintances.
We’re turning our authors into politicians, canvassing for votes on the social media doorsteps of their friends, families and colleagues. The general public has not read the entire shortlist of books before making their voting decision. They often haven’t even read the book they’re voting for. They’re just voting because they went to school with the author, or they made Facebook friends with him after a party, or because he’s their third cousin. Vote, vote, vote! The more the authors spread the word, the more attention the Irish Book Awards gets, the more blindingly brilliant a PR exercise it all is.
It’s all enough to make you think fondly of the Eurovision Song Contest, where at least we Irish people sit through all the songs beforehand and then make a determination. We can tell you all about the soaring voice and stunning beard of Conchita from Austria, the troupe of grannies from Russia and the skin-tight outfits of the Swedes, Italians and Maltese. Not only do we debate the songs, we actually listen to them before the song contest itself, to better determine our hot favourites and hopeless cases.
To be fair to the organisers of the Irish Book Awards, you can see their difficulty in popularising their ceremony. For all that we like to trumpet that Ireland is a nation of readers, people in Ireland are not reading books – at least not the way we used to. Book sales in Ireland are down by more than 40 per cent over the past five years, a terrifying statistic. Anything that draws attention to the written word could be seen as a welcome development. The Book Awards should take credit for putting literary matters back on the agenda: on our televisions, in our newspapers and radio broadcasts.
Still, it doesn’t seem right that our best-known literary awards ceremony would appear to devote such little importance to the practice of actually reading books.
It’s brilliant that the Awards have been so successful; they are now in their ninth year and going from strength to strength. But there must be better ways to run an awards ceremony than to dispense – at least when it comes to public voting – with the idea of reading the books.
Doesn’t everyone involved simply deserve better?