David Blackburn

Should the state be funding literary prizes?

The Booktrust has cancelled the John Llewellyn Rhys prize this year because it is suffering a ‘lack of funds’. £13m was cut from the Booktrust’s annual grant from the Department of Education was cut earlier in the year and the organisation has been forced into retrenchment.

Now, it is a pity that this widely respected prize will not be awarded this year. It is a favourite among the literati, many of whom owe their success to it. Margaret Drabble reveals in today’s Guardian that she would not have been introduced to the ‘London literary scene without the JLR’ and she labels it the ‘Booker without the back-stabbing’.

Contemporary literature is, believe it or not, an important industry in Britain and prizes are a useful and cheap form of publicity. The global prominence of institutions such as the Booker Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize attest to that fact. And arts organisations also play a more direct role in the health of the nation. For instance, the Booktrust provides free books for children. It is an essential service: recent surveys suggest that 1 in 3 children in London do not own a book. Sadly, those figures did not shock: similar results are published nearly every year. In that context, the Department for Education (DoE), gave a substantial grant to extend the Booktrust’s operations.

The arts minister, Ed Vaizey, is a determined defender of the mixed economy in the arts, recognising that the state can be an effective patron. The sun-kissed splendour of the National Gallery this morning proves that central arts patronage is not an innovation of the liberal left in the late twentieth century; it has a long and often glorious history.

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