The Guardian just excels at this kind of thing.
Jason Cowley's article highlights the effect of awards on literature and details the Orange Prize win for Lionel Shriver and her brilliant novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.
The Guardian quotes James English, an American academic who has written a book on the cultural effects of prize giving thusly,
" 'The process involves power, money, politics. Prizes create symbolic value astonishingly quickly and easily, because they bring together economic power, social connections, academic expertise and celebrity and enable rather complex transactions to take place."
This is spot on.
I think both casual and voracious readers especially are particularly accumulative in needing to keep up what's out there and they like the idea of having ticked books off their mental list.
There's a vast number of books that still have legs because they benefit from "buzz" on several levels. Prizes can mean big initial numbers, but a plethora of book clubs, community programs or steady word of mouth that can keep interest fairly high. Once that happens the interest is no longer symbolic.
There are always books that win major awards and are off the radar relatively quickly, but
I'm amazed at how well Oprah's backlist still sells. Moreover, any novel that can get consistently recommended from one friend to another can avoid the maw of the midlist. Literary prizes help foster that, so bring on the prizes.
Not for nothing did a disparate group of authors implore Oprah Winfrey to re-instate her book club.
Ezra Pound may have a small point in bemoaning prize giving in the mid 1920's (see article) but given the number of entertainment options out there, a few prizes with a track record that reward quality (I pay specific attention to the Orange Prize) can only be a good thing.
Sidebar, a couple of us at Words Worth read "Kevin" when it was still a new hardcover and hand sold the hell out of it. Prizes or not, having a Lionel Shriver to shout about makes for a great workday.
Posted by Dave