Lost for Words: A Satire of Literary Prizes (That, Of Course, Won a Prize)

Lost for WordsEdward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words takes aim at the world of literary prizes, depicting the fictional Elysian Prize committee as a nepotistic, egotistical cesspool.

It seems unlikely that such a novel could itself win a literary prize, yet, earlier this month, St. Aubyn’s novel won the UK’s 2014 Wodehouse prize. A “delighted and grateful” St Aubyn said:

“The only thing I was sure of when I was writing this satire on literary prizes was that it wouldn’t win any prizes. I was wrong… I had overlooked the one prize with a sense of humour.”

It sounds like Lost for Words may have found its way through a committee made up of panel members able to laugh at themselves and the insular literary culture in which they thrive. The Wodehouse is an award for comic fiction, after all. A prize that names a pig after the winning novel is probably bestowed by people who don’t take themselves too seriously.

As an outsider to the literary world, I cannot gauge the size of the kernel of truth at the heart of St. Aubyn’s fictional work. If it were to win another prize, one from a committee that takes itself more seriously, I wouldn’t know whether to think (1) that the novel is softer satire than it purports to be and thus too far from the truth for insiders to feel angry about the portrayal; or, (2) that the prize committee members are too obtuse to know when they’ve been made the fools.

However, I could see a prize committee choosing Lost for Words because the perception of irony would draw attention to their prize.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s been the case for the UK’s Wodehouse Prize. Until this year, which brought the media attention focused on St. Aubyn’s win, I’d never heard of it.

Wherever Lost for Words falls on the continuum between biting and soft satire, it’s certainly an amusing read. I laughed more than a few times, even when the punchline left me scratching my head. For example, the sponsor of the Elysian Prize is an agricultural company known for controversial genetically modified products, such “giraffe carrots” that “had been a great help to the busy housewife, freeing her to peel a single carrot for Sunday lunch instead of a whole bunch or bag.”

Managing to ignore the annoying adherence to gender norms (are we to assume men have a Freudian aversion to peeling carrots?), I chuckled at the description until I started to wonder how on earth an extra long carrot, as a “giraffe carrot” would presumably be, could save anyone time. You’d still have to peel a large surface area (on a vegetable that is much harder to hold), and maybe even spend more time cutting it down to size. Giraffe carrots couldn’t possibly compete with its opposite, baby and “baby-cut” carrots, which are already peeled. I know, I’m overthinking it. I’ll move on.

Giraffe carrots aside, the novel is genuinely funny, though much of that humor comes from St. Aubyn’s one-dimensional treatment of the characters: there are the downtrodden “bad” mothers who chose their jobs over their families, the vixen with an insatiable desire for sex (we see that in Frog Music too), the vengeful foreigner, the depressed artist, the insufferable philosopher, and, of course, the men who think with their penises.* There is more than one of them in this novel.

I found myself wishing the characters were more than these stereotypes, but such is often the nature of satire. Lost for Words uses caricatures and exaggerations to critique the arbitrary world of literary prizes, pulling back the curtain enough to reveal some of the processes at work. The novel certainly encourages the reader to look at these prizes with a critical eye, ascertain for herself what works deserve literary recognition, and ultimately consider the definition of art.

And while everyone else who read this book is doing that, I’m still thinking about giraffe carrots.

Check out this review of St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words:

  • Ryan at The Avid Reader (5/19/14): “Overall, this is a brilliantly constructed novel that pokes fun at and defines what we love about literature. It is art. It is crazy. And we love it so.”

Edited at 8 AM: I removed “the clueless elderly woman” from the list because she transcends this stereotype. As an outsider to literary culture, she’s the only one who does.

17 thoughts on “Lost for Words: A Satire of Literary Prizes (That, Of Course, Won a Prize)

  1. Now I can’t stop thinking of giraffe carrots. Admittedly, as I read your description of them and how life was supposedly made easier because of them, I couldn’t help but try to reason why . . .

  2. This is one I really want to read. There is something inherently humorous about the way everyone in a given industry pats each other on the back and pretends that the prizes are actually objective.

    1. It’s definitely an amusing read. I’ve never understood literary prizes. Why bother choosing a single winner? There’s no objective criteria, and different books are going to appeal to different readers. Anyway, if you decide to read Lost for Words, I hope you enjoy it!

  3. In my admittedly small literary world, contests are almost always based on the popularity of the participants, and so I mostly ignore them. I wasn’t popular in school. Why would I want to put myself through this again as an adult? 😉 The book sounds like a lot of fun though.

    1. Thanks! I pictured extra long, furry carrots with spots. I agree that there is often a grain of truth in caricatures, and it certainly can be funny. St. Aubyn did a pretty good job of it overall.

  4. SF

    This book sounds funny, but it could be better for people more familiar w/ trad publishing & literary prizes than I am. I don’t follow prizes or really care if the books I’m reading won any. I did hear that this book was bashed in some reviews…. maybe by the p.o.’d “insiders”?

    1. I imagine that it might be funnier for people who are familiar with literary prizes (but not the ones bestowing them). I did enjoy it even without such a background, though. I have also seen that Lost for Words received mixed reviews from traditional reviewers. Someone even called it a case of “sour grapes.” So maybe St. Aubyn’s fictional committee is close to the truth!

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