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What do we prize: readability or literary merit?

Yesterday’s announcement of the finalists for the National Book Awards, one of the top U.S. literary prizes, raised what is becoming a familiar debate: should literary merit win out over readability when it comes to awarding book prizes?

Salon’s Laura Miller has critiqued this year’s NBA fiction shortlist for once again favouring esoteric, literary titles over more popular reads like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.

According to Miller, successive NBA juries have encouraged the perception of their own irrelevance in annointing so-called “writers’ writers” (i.e. those who favour “a poetic prose style, [and] elliptical or fragmented storytelling”) over the books most people actually want to read:

The National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public … the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.

Similar concerns about readability versus artistic merit cropped up last month when the Man Booker Prize jury said it strove to make this year’s shortlist more reader-friendly. In the wake of the Booker’s populist shortlist, a U.K. group announced this week that it will launch The Literature Prize to honour artistic excellence, which it feels the Booker now fails to recognize.

What about honouring books that are at once readable and literary? Booker administrator Ion Trewin told The Bookseller the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive:

“I think I have gone on record in the past as saying that I believe in literary excellence and readability – the two should go hand in hand.”

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Book Pictures

Do you have great photos from a recent book event in Canada that you'd like to share with us? Submit them to the Quill & Quire Flickr pool and they'll show up here.

Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

Tea and snacks inspired by Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Rimma Burashko with author Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak talks to the audience about the best and worst of Catherine the Great's favourites

Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Lesley Strutt, Dean Steadman, Amanda Earl, Alastair Larwill and Frances Boyle

Frances Boyle, Dean Steadman, Lesley Strutt and Alastair Larwill

Amanda Earl

Jewel of the Thames launch

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