Lily Allen and the Orange Prize

07 April 2008

So, farewell Lily Allen. I don't think it's stunning news that she has pulled out of judging the Orange Prize, especially given the horrible things she has been dealing with recently, and what is undoubtedly a very long to-do list. But I think it's fair to ask why she was approached to be a judge in the first place.

We (publishers) are constantly (it can seem) being lectured by everyone with a blog and a page on Facebook about how out of touch we are. It seems possible that Lily Allen was appointed partly as a sop to these people, as well as to self-styled critics who decry prizes as 'elitist', having nothing to do with what 'real' readers might want.

Great songs and everything, but it seems unlikely to me that any 22-year-old - let alone a 22-year-old whose primary interest has to be her musical career - would be in a position to judge a major literary prize. It requires a huge commitment of time and focus, a certain amount of peace and quiet in which to read and concentrate and - maybe? - some experience of both literature and life. I would love to have been at the meeting where discussion of these criteria led naturally to the conclusion: Lily Allen. It seems much more likely that the administrators thought she was hip, articulate, smart, just the right side of controversial and, above all, famous, and would get their prize more attention than it usually receives. They were probably right; as I type, the BBC news ticker has her departure running as a headline across the bottom of my screen, just behind 'Five's Trisha has breast cancer'.

Lily Allen

What makes me cross is the way that anyone who asked these questions at the time was immediately dismissed as a stuck-up and hopelessly elitist publishing type. And now, we're getting the same thing again; on the Guardian website, for instance, a piece about her withdrawal from the judging panel describes her appointment thus: 'Many lit snobs squawked, wondering what a 22-year-old pop singer would bring to the table - other than chewing gum and photographers' flash-bulbs'. (Nowhere does the post actually answer the question - presumably because it's just so obviously wrong-headed.) In this way, legitimate questions (not the stupid stuff about chewing-gum and flashbulbs) are dismissed as 'squawking', and the people who ask them are, straightforwardly, 'snobs'.

I am personally unaware of any authors (or artists, or actors) who have been approached to judge the Mercury Music Prize, or the Mobos, or for that matter the Eurovision Song Contest. But I don't read articles saying it's a conspiracy on the part of 'muso snobs' who are hopelessly behind the times and don't know 'what people want'. Why is it that people believe that judging a literary prize is something that almost anyone can do, and that if someone makes a claim for expertise, knowledge, experience or sometimes even the superiority of one book over another, that person can be dismissed as a 'snob'? I suppose it's for the same reason that I meet people all the time who firmly believe they could write a novel/volume of short stories/poetry collection just as good as anything I have been deluded enough to commission from my ivory tower in literary fairyland, no, sorry, I mean King's Cross.

So what's a publisher to do? Just embrace the celebujudge phenomenon, accept that people basically think reading and writing are to the arts what snap is to bridge, and look forward to Jordan judging - no, actually, hang on a minute, winning - the Orange Broadband Prize in 2009?