Daphnes book prize launched to right literary wrongs of past

New prize will start by reappraising 1963’s fiction gongs, when John Updike’s The Centaur won National Book Award ahead of The Bell Jar and V

The Centaur’s author John Updike in the early 1960s. Photograph: Reuters

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Daphnes book prize launched to right literary wrongs of past” was written by Alison Flood, for theguardian.com on Thursday 30th January 2014 16.56 UTC

John Updike shouldn't have won the National Book Award in 1964, according to the organisers of a new retrospective book prize which is setting out to "right the wrongs of 50 years ago" by throwing titles including The Bell Jar and V into the mix.

The awards, to be known as the Daphnes, are being set up by literary book site Bookslut. "If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book," writes editor Jessa Crispin. "Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favouritism to see that some books just aren't that good."

The awards will start with books published in 1963, when Updike's The Centaur – "ugh," said Crispin – won the 1964 National Book Awards. Bookslut has begun to compile a list of titles published that year, including Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Thomas Pynchon's V – a runner-up to Updike in the National Book Awards – Thomas Bernhard's Frost, JG Ballard's Passport to Eternity and Iris Murdoch's The Unicorn. Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré, Divided Heaven by Christa Wolf and The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark are also in the running for the fiction prize, with non-fiction, poetry and children's book awards also to be made.

"We're not doing a feminist corrective, or a corrective based on any sort of identity politics," Crispin told US publisher Melville House's blog MobyLives. "I'm just tired of having the same conversations about 20th-century literature, which always seems to revolve around these same writers: Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Roth. When you challenge this reduction, when you say maybe there were other books, other stories, other things going on, people get angry … Maybe Updike really did write the best book of the year! But I doubt it. Hopscotch is a marvel, Muriel Spark is still 10 years ahead of us."

 The decision to revisit the prizes was made, she told MobyLives, because every year, when literary awards are announced, "important, innovative work by brilliant writers gets overlooked and we end up celebrating some mediocre book because it was something that we could understand. And so every year I just about throw myself into epileptic fits of anger when I see the list of nominees, because every year we pretend we all live in a meritocracy, and the best books just happen to be the books that everyone agrees on, that get published by the big corporate publishers, that reinforce our ideas about what gender is, what society is, what history is".

The Daphnes, she said, will be her way "of rewarding value, even if it's way past the time when it would do much good to the writer him or herself. The good it might do is letting contemporary writers and readers know they are working in a territory that is so much richer than they may have first thought".

Bookslut is asking for help to "flesh out the nominees" for the 1963 awards, because, wrote Crispin, "we have been frustrated in our efforts to find a comprehensive list of books published in 1963, most of the online lists have listed only or mostly American and British books, and there have been some conflicting publishing dates on some of our books".

The shortlist will be announced next month, when the prize's judges will also be revealed. There are plans to continue the prizes next year, "if all goes well", said Crispin.

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