How to Feel Inadequate in One Easy Lesson

Image 1As a number of fellow bloggers have noted we have a new book award forthcoming. A couple of weeks ago details were announced of the Folio Prize, which will be presented for the first time in March 2014. Unlike the ManBooker, which limits itself to writers from the Commonwealth, this prize is intended to recognise the best English-language fiction from anywhere in the world as long as it has been published in the United Kingdom, regardless of form, genre or the author’s country of origin.

Many gallons of ink, not to mention a few buckets of tears, have already been shed over the backstory to this award, which was first mooted a couple of years ago when certain people felt that the ManBooker was concerning itself with the notion of readability rather than focusing on the literary worth of the novels up for consideration. Don’t worry, I have no intention of rehashing those arguments here. Oh no, my concern is of a much more personal nature. In my case one more award is simply one more opportunity for me to be forced to come to terms with just what a poorly-read individual I am.

I don’t know about you but every time an award short list is published I end up berating myself for being so far behind in my reading of what is apparently considered the ‘best’.  Almost inevitably I have read nothing on it. Oh, just occasionally, if one of my favourite authors is there, I might have read a single entry, but I can’t remember the last time I’d read two or more. I tend to be more forgiving where long lists are concerned, after all, some of the titles on those will be the ‘dark horses’ of the literary world that none but people who are in the know will have come across. But surely someone like me, who spends several hours every day with her nose in a book, ought to have read more of what is thought to be the best and the most worthy? It seems the answer is ‘no’.

So, in an attempt to do something about my inadequacies, every time one of these lists comes out I promise myself that I will high-tail it down to the library and reserve each and every last book. Sometimes I even do it. Last year I checked out all six of the short list for the Orange. I wasn’t going to get caught out again, oh no.

I managed to read one.

Something else always seemed just that wee bit more enticing and before I knew where I was the books had to go back to the library in order to be checked out by borrowers who actually would read them: better readers than I could ever hope to be.

Just a fortnight ago, having been complaining here about falling behind in my knowledge of what was happening in the world of children’s literature, I dutifully printed out the short list for the Carnegie Award. I could do this. I could start to pick up the slack I’d let develop since I finished lecturing in the subject. I can proudly report that I have one of the eight sitting on my shelves right this minute. What’s that? Have I read it? Don’t be idiotic, of course I haven’t.

In fact, there are now so many awards that no reader could hope to keep up with them all, even given the duplication that inevitably appears. The long list for the Impac alone runs into over a hundred titles. (Help! Isn’t that short list imminent?) I know that I am asking the impossible of myself. However, that doesn’t stop me feeling completely sub-standard each time a new set of titles appears. So, for me the conflict concerned with the arrival on the scene of yet another fiction prize has nothing to do with the politics behind the way the books are selected or who the judges might be and everything to do with the opportunity it presents for me to beat myself up yet again for my reading inadequacies.  It won’t be long before the Women’s Prize short list is available.  Would someone please hand over the sack cloth and ashes.

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26 thoughts on “How to Feel Inadequate in One Easy Lesson

  1. Funny, yesterday I was going through a backlog of book-blog emails and adding and pruning my to-read shelves on Goodreads and I found myself wondering what it must be like to be so focused on the contemporary, and whether people were actually enjoying their reading. (Not that there wasn’t passion for some of these books, but sometimes reviews can be so clinical.) It sort of made me happy that I only discuss books occasionally and feel like I can read whatever strikes my fancy.

    That said, I’m very much a list person, so I can see why prize lists might make one feel inadequate. I guess because I only recently started learning about the contemporary book scene, I take things like the Booker or (former) Orange more as a starting point for what I might want to read, rather than some sort of reading imperative. (especially given that I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you what the Booker was 10 years ago).

    In fact, as I wind up a month of blogging screwball comedies, I realized that lists (and my completist tendencies) can also take the joy out of something when done on a timetable. And if there is one thing James over at http://followingpulitzer.wordpress.com/ has opened my eyes to, it’s the number of duds that can be on these “gold standard” lists.

    In short, you shouldn’t beat yourself up. Or, in the words of someone wiser than me: “You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count.”

    1. Sly Wit, that is wonderful. I’ve never heard that before but in future I shall be telling everyone that there are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count. Where does that come from? It sounds like something Pooh might say or at least worry about. Actually, it also reminds me of my approach to writing when I was a teacher. I feel a blog post coming on!

  2. This must be a somewhat universal experience, because on the opposite side of the pond, I am having the same library problem you have. I used to check out (and read) an astounding number of books, but now I’m lucky to get through enough to even justify going to the library once or twice a month. I end up reading books I own, but not many. I think that after a spurt of reading, reading, reading, the mind declares a revolution and simply shuts down for a while. That’s my guess, anyway. But at least I know now (by reading your post) that I am not alone in this quandary.

    1. We will support each other through this debilitating affliction, Shadowoperator and be glad that we have found a kindred spirit at whatever the distance:)

  3. Deep breath! I gave up trying to keep up with it all years ago. It’s much less stressful. And really, who does read all those books other than the award judges (and I’ve heard rumors that sometimes they don’t even read them all). As long as you enjoy the books you do read that’s what matters most.

    1. It’s the list thing Stefanie, I think I’m addicted to them. Too many years of having to make them if I had even a hope of getting through the working week. But you’re right it really does make for unnecessary stress.

  4. And then there’s the conviction of inadequacy that comes from not even recognizing some of the authors on the lists – let alone the titles.

    1. Oh Yes, Lisa! Just keep telling yourself that there is a real fashion at the moment for putting first time writers on these lists and so you can’t possibly be expected to have heard of them, especially as some books get selected even before they’ve been published.

  5. Stefanie’s right – I read a fascinating article a few days ago by a Canadian author who was one of the judges for a prize. She said she couldn’t believe it when the short list was published – and came as a complete surprise to her. No one had sent her a single book to read. Now, if the JUDGES haven’t read what’s on the list, I think you may put your worry about being under-read to one side, no? 😉

    1. The worst thing about that, Litlove, is that it doesn’t surprise me. I read some of the books that actually win these prizes and question whether any of the judges have ever read them!

  6. Oh dear I know how you feel. Between the prize lists, the 100 books to read before you die, the 1001best books of all time etc etc etc, I feel like the hamster on the wheel. My tiny legs are running as fast as they can go but the wheel always seems to go faster than I can. The other day I started to think – realistically how many books are there that I can possibly read in the rest of my life. If I read 40 a year that means in 10 years there are 400 books I can read (way more than are in my TBR pile so hey I can justify buying some more now can’t I???

    1. Kheenand, my doctoral supervisor once told me that the day he came face to face with his own mortality was the day he realised that he owned more books that he hadn’t read than he had time left to read. It is a salutary thought!

  7. No sackcloth and ashes from me, dear Alex! I used to at least have some idea of what was going on in the literary world, even if I hadn’t read all the books. But I found I was often disappointed by novels to which others awarded prizes. I absolutely agree with kheenand and I have realised that I probably won’t have time to read all the books I want to read so I can’t be bothered with anything that doesn’t excite or intrigue me. If you’d like my advice (and who does?!) then make lists of books that YOU want to read to satisfy that list love!

    1. I’m always ready to listen to your advice, Helen and you’re right, some of the books that have prizes awarded to them leave me gasping. Who could ever have thought they were any good? Don’t worry, though, I am great at making my own lists, it’s just that I can’t resist other peoples as well.

  8. LOL! I don’t need a lesson on inadequacy … it’s inherent self-knowledge. As a slow reader, I’ve already given up feeling threatened by long lists of TBR books, boxes of them in my home. Rather, I welcome them as friendly recommendations. Glad to have a new book award for more suggestions, albeit I know what you mean, inadvertent duplications. But just like I welcome the movie Awards Season from Dec. to Feb. every year, I’m excited all over again with literary awards. 😉

    1. There is something so exciting about a new list, isn’t there? Why is that? Sometimes I feel the list is more engaging than the real life items that it is made up of.

  9. Great post and great comments!

    I’m behind on ALL my awards: I haven’t read the Hilary Mantel (Booker) or the new Louise Erdrich (National Book Award).

    So I’ve decided just to read what I want! Not all books are written for all of us.

    1. Oh goodness! What new Louise Edrich? What have I missed? And just so you don’t feel too bad, I’ve only just ordered the Mantel from the library.

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