Of all the lies told to small children by well-meaning adults, ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts,’ must be the most easily disproven. Even a gullible child can see that the world fetes winners, derides losers, and ignores those who have the temerity to suggest that it’s only a game. Taking part counts for nothing. Winning is all.
Competition is undoubtedly a spur to greatness. Athletes achieve their best when they have a rival to beat. But what if winning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? This week saw Bradley Wiggins admit that – after the golden summer of 2012 - sometimes he wished he hadn’t won the Tour De France. The sudden fame made it hard to ‘do normal stuff with the children, things like that’. Professional fulfilment came with a personal cost. And that’s from someone who has spent their whole life learning to cope with the fallout from both victory and defeat.
It’s hard for other professionals to cope with winning and losing too. This week saw the release of the Man Booker longlist, which includes some terrific books, spanning tastes from experimental to populist. Inevitably, much of the coverage focused on authors who didn’t make the cut. Since the submissions list is confidential, the only books which people know were entered are those which make the longlist, and those written by previous winners and shortlistees, because they’re automatically eligible. So the headlines tend to focus on the missing big names: Amis, McEwan and Self, just for starters.
But then what of the reviewers’ favourites which didn’t make it through? Books we all know must have been entered, and somehow been found wanting by the judges? Authors and readers have to bear in mind that publishers don’t always submit books which, in retrospect, they should have. I have been asked several times this year about one book – which has gone on to receive enormous acclaim – being missed out by Booker judges last year (of which I was one). The publishers didn’t submit the book, so it hadn’t a hope of winning.
No-one is trying to miss great work, but sometimes it happens. The difficulty with prizes in the creative world is that they tend to be chosen by a small committee. If those people have different taste from you, it’s tempting to think they are wrong. But the reality is that we can’t know how or even whether some books were ignored. Read three novels set during the same period, or with similar narrative voices or structural devices, and it’s hard to like them all. It’s no-one’s fault that similar books are submitted, but it does mean that some good things feel passé, undeservedly.
My shelves sparkle with wonderful books which were somehow overlooked by prize judges. It’s depressing for authors who can’t get a publishing deal because their last book didn’t shift enough copies, no matter how brilliant its devoted readers know it to be. For whatever reason, some authors just don’t write the kind of books that prize judges tend to go for.
And it’s not confined to the book world, either: Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for directing, though he was nominated five times. Even when Rebecca won best picture, in 1940, he didn’t win, losing to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Nowadays, you’d struggle to find a list of top ten films which doesn’t include Vertigo, but on its release it was only nominated for two Oscars, for Sound and Art Direction. It didn’t win in either category.
Lack of awards has never mattered as much for those whose work is commercially successful. David Nicholls has made the longlist for the first time this year, but his earlier novels sold a zillion copies without the Booker imprimatur. Plenty of people are delighted to see his name on the list, but I hope he isn’t too bothered. His readers already love him, and that is the great delight of writing a book.
Only this week, I received mail from someone on the other side of the world, who had wandered into his local library and found a copy of a book I wrote four years ago, which neither won nor was nominated for a single award. It had, he told me, persuaded him that he should be studying what he loves. I can’t lie: I wish it had been lauded with laurel wreaths when it came out. But if it’s still being read by people who enjoy it, that’s praise enough.
My expectations of a Kurt Cobain biopic have taken a small hit this week, with an announcement from Courtney Love that she is watching demo reels to find the lead. ‘These are 25-year-olds who are blond, gorgeous and the new Brad Pitts,’ she said, which makes this audition process sound like something short of the worst job in showbusiness. ‘Some are really good actors, not just pretty faces.’
No doubt it’s my age, but if you’re submitting people to play the lead role in a movie, shouldn’t they all be ‘really good actors’? It’s no good casting someone handsome and then hoping they don’t have to do any emotional stuff: this is the story of Kurt Cobain, the very definition of a tortured artist. There is room in the film industry for pretty-but-wooden (opposite giant robots or in the midst of alien warfare), but a Cobain biopic is surely not the place.
Long ago, when I worked in a video store, my favourite task was digging up old B-Movies with terrible titles. Troma always took a lot of beating (Surf Nazis Must Die, Class of Nuke ‘Em High), although my favourite might still be Hell Comes to Frogtown. But this week, Giant Ants in Hendon turned out not to be a B-Movie, but the truth: there are giant ants in a house in Hendon. Even if I weren’t afraid of ants, I would find this deeply troubling.
The ants are drawn to electricity apparently, and thus cause fires. I want to read more about how to get rid of them, but every story about the ants is accompanied by a picture of one (or, worse, of more than one). So I can’t read it. Instead, I live in ignorance and fear. The giant ants have won.