Lost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize.”

                                 from  Lost for Words


The polite, cutthroat world of literary politics

Ever wonder how books are chosen for those prestigious literary prizes—the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer, the Hugo, the Edgar?

In his novel, Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn, author of the popular Patrick Melrose series, delightfully skewers the personalities and the politics that decide the winners.

Malcolm Craig, an obscure opposition MP with little to do on the backbench and no literary credentials is appointed to head the Elysian Prize committee, a clear reference to the Man Booker Prize—Britain’s highest literary award—for which, it just so happens, St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted, and lost.

To join him on the jury selecting the year’s most worthy novel, Craig gathers an Oxbridge academic, a retired officer from the Foreign Office, a popular actor, and (well, why not) even a writer.

They argue vehemently over the nominated books they haven’t actually read (200 titles—how could they?) and fight passionately for the one book they have.

The shortlist is pared down to: The Mulberry Elephant, The Frozen Torrent, wot u starin at, The Greasy Pole, and a cookbook, submitted by mistake from the publishing firm of Page and Turner.

Some members of the committee immediately recognize The Palace Cookbook as “the boldest metafictional performance of our time.” A collection of Indian recipes, it also contains brief family stories (Think Suzanne Martinson’s The Fallingwater Cookbook.)

Ever since Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, satire has been a staple of British literature. Certainly, other cultures also employ satire, but the British do it with a certain wicked glee—Yes, I know I’m being naughty, but isn’t this fun?

In that fine British tradition, St. Aubyn has his fun, making sharp observations on everything, from how committees operate (“Malcolm favoured a collegiate approach: there was nothing like proving you were a team player to get your own way”) to our selfie-obsessed modern society where “the collective unconscious has become the collective self-conscious”; even on falling in love (“…it had all gone terribly wrong, but that, after all, was the point of romantic folly. If it hadn’t all gone terribly wrong, it wouldn’t have been the real thing.”)

Along the way, the committee struggles to decide who will receive the coveted Elysian Prize. I won’t give away which book wins because, well, really, who cares?

A footnote: Lost for Words won the 2014 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. Just as well, since it’s not likely to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-October 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.