Awards ceremonies are absurd and frivolous, and people say that as if it’s a bad thing. Some children stay up late on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa Claus. The only night of the year I stayed awake as a kid was Oscars night, waiting to see just how annoyed Barbra Streisand would look when The Prince Of Tides lost to The Silence Of The Lambs in 1992’s Best Film category (answer: very). The losers’ determination to cling on to some shred of dignity by their tightly clenched teeth (“It was an honour just to be nominated!!!”); the winners’ giddy abandonment of all dignity when they get up on stage (“To all my fellow dreamers out there – sob – you can make it happen, too!”): you can’t write better melodrama.
And it’s not just the Oscars. Like a gambler who will bet on the weather if he can’t get into the casino, I love all awards ceremonies: the Booker, the Turner, the Brits. I like watching other people’s emotional dramas play out in a glamorous setting. Witnessing the dashing of other people’s hopes is fascinating. Experiencing my own dashed hopes is, strangely, less so.
But first, let’s discuss awards ceremonies in the age of Covid. If an awards ceremony happens without a ceremony, has it happened at all? One for the philosophers among you. I admired the pluckiness of the Golden Globes last month, determinedly going through the motions by Zoom, with Tina Fey hosting in New York, Amy Poehler in LA, and everyone else at home. But I looked at the nominees, carefully dressed up just to sit on their own sofas, and I imagined the losers later, wiping off their makeup and unzipping the dress that had been, in the end, for nothing – not even a party! – and it all seemed worse than pointless: it seemed cruel. Yes, so very, very cruel.
Which brings us to the most important contestant here: moi. So I don’t know if I mentioned this before once or a million times, but last year I wrote a book. I never expected anyone other than my parents to read it, so anything else is a bonus (“It was an honour just to be nominated!!!”). This is what I told myself when it was shortlisted for two prizes, and it’s what I kept telling myself in the run-up to the ceremonies – until five minutes before the first event, when cruel hope entered the picture.
First up was the Wingate prize, which is basically the Jewish Book of the Year award. Given that I once played Esther, queen of the Jews, in my Hebrew school’s Purim play, this seemed like a prize I might have a shot at. I was told to log in at 6.30pm. So at 6.20pm, I left my children eating supper with their father in the kitchen and, instead of getting in a limo and going to a fabulous event, I went upstairs to my bedroom. Why the bedroom, you ask? Because that’s the location of the best wifi signal in the house, something I have to say every time I do an interview, explaining to Tom Hanks or Jon Bon Jovi why I’m talking to them from my bed, as though I were Paula Yates or – more plausibly – Charlie Bucket’s grandfather. Having insisted all day that I obviously wouldn’t get dressed up just for a Zoom event, I panicked: I didn’t want to look rude, but I also didn’t want to look ridiculous. What is the midpoint between a tracksuit and a party dress? Fancy knitwear, I decided, frantically pulling on a smart jumper as I turned on my laptop.
Anyway, I lost. Maybe it was because I had pillows behind me instead of the more cerebral option of books, like all the other nominees. Thankfully, we were allowed to turn off our video during the announcement, so that viewers didn’t see me running to the loo and mistake it for a Piers Morgan-style flounce off.
No such luck two nights later when I lost the First Biography prize – but I have watched enough awards shows to know how to maintain a fixed smile. I lost, respectively, to The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits, a novel translated from Hebrew; and Red Comet by Heather Clark, a biography of Sylvia Plath. This seems apt, given how bad I was at Hebrew translation as a kid, and how many bad essays I wrote about Plath at university. Hebrew and Plath got their revenge in the end.
Losing twice in 48 hours hasn’t put me off awards ceremonies, but it hasn’t convinced me of the merits of doing them on Zoom. At least you don’t have to leave your house to lose, but nor do you get a goody bag. As I wrote this column, it was announced that the Press Awards – the annual journalism backslap – had been postponed. Bad news for the Press Awards, brilliant news for me: I always lose and this year I will, if not exactly win, then, for the first time ever, not lose. And I didn’t even need any fancy knitwear or carefully curated piles of books to help me.