Friday, November 12, 2010

Battle of the Prizes - British Version: Personality

In a word, lukewarm. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which is a new award to me, and so far it is not off to a stirring start. The award was started in 1919 and has recognized a number of important authors during its long history. You'd think it would be right in my wheelhouse, since it has a reputation of being a prize for the ivory towers and not for the hoi polloi (and goodness knows I fancy myself one of the book snobs!).

Maybe this was just a slow year. You'd think the story of a teenaged pop singer who wins a televised talent show and is catapulted to mega-star status practically overnight would be interesting and compelling, but I found it neither. I was mildly interested in the ways that 13-year-old Maria's career forces her to abandon her very ordinary family for the glitz of show business, and their struggles to understand each other as their lives become more and more disconnected.

But the pressures, dangers, and costs of stardom never seemed particularly moving. O'Hagan trots out the creepiness of a stalker fan, the shadow of anorexia, the faltering friendship with her best friend, and the gulf between life before and life during celebrity. There's also a drowning and a family secret. But somehow, despite the telling details, I never cared about Maria.

Part of the problem, I think, is the shifting viewpoint and storytelling approach. Some perspectives are considerably more interesting than others. To name a few: O'Hagan presents Maria's voice, the producer's voice, the boyfriend's voice, Maria's mother's voice, increasingly threatening letters from her psycho fan, and a plaintive correspondence with her best friend. There are also some reproduced newspaper clippings, interview transcripts, and a swooping eye that is like a camera eye but not associated with any film crew. The result, unfortunately, is more of a mess than a mosaic.

I'll be the first to admit that my sample of these prizewinners is woefully small. But I'm a bit puzzled why this book seems so far from the mark of an exceptionally good read. Perhaps the fact that the nominees and winners are chosen by professors and Ph.D. students at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland leads to a certain amount of unevenness in quality? The list of winners leaves me with the same lukewarm feeling. Many major names and many unknown names grace the list of winners. And John le Carre wrote the best book in 1977? Really?

So far, not so good.


The people around her thought she had all the showbusiness virtues--she had them by heart, and, even better, she had been born with them. Everyone in the room said that to themselves and they said it to one another. She knew how to sing a song about love in a way that would break your heart. And she seemed to know all the rules: how to present herself to an audience, how to clamber up the microphone stand and disappear into a song and give it everything. She had talent. She had personality. That is what Mr Green had said. That is how he put it to the press when asked to explain his new singing sensation from Scotland.


  1. Such a great summary...I think this is one I can pass:)

  2. Hmm. If the excerpt is indicative, I have to agree with you.


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