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Lost for Words    by Edward St. Aubyn order for
Lost for Words
by Edward St. Aubyn
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2015 (2014)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Lost for Words is a spoof of the process of picking a winner of a major British literary award which the author calls the Elysian Prize for Literature. The committee that is to read the submitted works and decide the winner has been chosen by a man the author calls 'that Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire.' When he asks Malcolm Craig to chair the committee, Malcolm has to think about whether he wants to get involved, not necessarily because of his distaste for Hampshire, but mainly because Elysian is an agricultural company that produces 'some of the world's most radical herbicides and pesticides,' which made it a target of environmentalists who claimed that its products 'disrupted the food chain, destroyed bee populations, or turned cattle into cannibals.'

He accepts the chairmanship out of boredom and for the political reason that he wants enough public exposure to enable him to regain his job as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, which he had lost when he made a 'reckless speech about Scottish independence.' He is annoyed to discover that Hampshire won't allow him to have any input in the choice of the other members of the committee.

The committee members are a varied lot, but for the most part they have no idea of what should be considered good literature. The only member of the committee who even reads the submitted works is Vanessa Shaw who is 'an Oxbridge academic' who teaches English. She dutifully reads most of the books in their entirety, while the others skim the books. Malcolm doesn't even do that; 'he asked his secretary to skim through the early submissions looking for his own special interest, anything with a Scottish flavor.' We are introduced to each of the committee members, as well as some of the authors, in the first part of the book.

The plot picks up in the second half, after the announcement of the Long List and becomes even funnier when the committee announces the Short List of six finalists. The members have been able to get along reasonably well up to this point, but once the Short List is announced, tensions develop which are almost insurmountable.

I sincerely hope that committees in charge of awarding literary prizes are more aware of what is meant by good literature than the six members of the Elysian Committee portrayed in Lost for Words. One fears, however, that Edward St. Aubyn, who wrote this book, believes there is some truth in his send-up of the selection process for literary prizes and of the people who are chosen to make the selections. At any rate he has written an amusing and enjoyable account of one such prize.

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