Monday, January 24, 2005

The Booker Prize and absolute nonsense

Companies that sponsor prizes do so chiefly, I suspect, to obtain cheap publicity. And in that regard the Man Booker company, sponsors of the (Man) Booker Prize for fiction, do better than most.

Last week, for instance, there were masses of stories (e.g. Telegraph and Guardian) just about the choice of a chairman for the judges, and whether the judges will actually read the whole of each book or not.

But that is not what I want to witter on about today. No, what I thought I would do is draw your attention to the merciless winner-take-all mechanism which accompanies this annual jamboree.

When you and I are faced with a book, and asked to say whether it is a masterpiece or an overblown piece of self-indulgent nonsense, there is no universally recognised scale against which we can measure the book and come to a clear conclusion. Judging a book is a matter of taste and sensibility, and you are likely to maintain that your taste and sensibility are superior to mine. (You are probably right, since my taste is notoriously vulgar.)

As far as the Booker Prize is concerned, it is safe to say that the choice of the ‘best’ book of the year is inevitably a matter of opinion rather than fact. And not even unanimous opinion. In almost every year there are press reports of disagreements among the judges, and in some years we hear of ‘compromise choices’ or the chairman’s casting vote. We also know that, in one particular case, the eventual winner was unusually ‘fortunate’.

In 2002 the winner of the Booker Prize was Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Many newspapers reports at the time told us that this book had been rejected by Faber, the firm which had published Martel’s earlier work; the book had also been turned down by at least five other major publishers. So if Canongate had not taken the book, it is likely that the manuscript would have remained in the author’s filing cabinet. Furthermore, if the book had been accepted by one of the bigger firms, it would not even have been entered for the Booker Prize in the first place, because the big firms (only allowed two nominations) have to enter their most famous authors; if they don’t, the famous authors are likely to go elsewhere.

The Life of Pi saga provides a beautifully clear demonstration of the random nature of decision-making in publishing. Here we have a book which was turned down for publication by numerous ‘good judges’. It was entered for the Booker Prize by a small firm which had no stronger candidates. And it so happened that the particular set of judges who were reading in 2002 happened to like it best. Or a majority of them did.

All rational observers will agree that Life of Pi, or any other Booker winner, cannot sensibly be described as the best book of the year in any absolute sense. The Life of Pi episode shows us, undeniably, that there might have been other books that year which were either not published at all or were published by big firms which were not able to submit them -- books which could, quite possibly, have found favour with the judges if they had been submitted. The most that can be said of the book which wins the Booker Prize is that it is the one which (of those presented for consideration) the judges liked the best.

But observe, please, what happens when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced (in any year). What happens is that the media, the critics, and the public, all behave as if there is some absolute sense in which the winner is the best book of the year. They act as if the book has been held up against a ruler, a universally agreed scale, and has been found, indisputably, and scientifically, to be ‘better’ than any other.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I was given a copy of the New York Review of Books, in which there was a lengthy review of the most recent Booker winner; the article it runs to 108 column inches. Similar things no doubt happen every year. And this ‘star treatment’ will be repeated in newspapers and magazines throughout the English-speaking world.

It is the winning novel, please note, which is treated in this way – not the runners-up; and certainly not the good books which were not submitted by their publishers; and definitely not the books which didn’t even make it into print. It is the winning author who will be interviewed on television, invited to writers’ conferences, and made the subject, in due course, of earnest PhD theses by bespectacled young people who can think of nothing better to do with their time than waste it by deconstructing a novelist’s prose. This is the winner-take-all mechanism in its most unforgiving form.

The runners-up, the non-shortlisted books, and the unpublished books, all those are losers who disappear from our sight, never to be heard of again. And yet we know, beyond doubt, that but for the workings of randomness, which favoured the winner and disfavoured the others, there might be one, ten, or a hundred other books which could, in different circumstances, have proved to be more enticing to the judges than did the eventual winner.

The winner-take-all mechanism in the book world is thus shown to be brutal, vicious, and deadly.

There is no point in complaining about it: it is just the way things happen; the world in general, and the book trade in particular, is unfair, unjust, and patently absurd in its workings. But all those who work in the book trade, in particular those who write and sell novels, need to be aware of this situation. And they need to ask themselves whether a business in which randomness is so powerful a factor in the distribution of rewards is a business which sensible people should allow themselves to be involved in.


KayKay said...

Dear GOB, you hit the nail (nay, a couple of nails) on the bloated head of this Booker Media Circus.

Your observations on the randomness of the selections and the sheer part Lady Luck plays in the whole exercise is spot on.

The Booker is no definitive yardstick for a book's quality anymore than the Oscars are to a films.The judging panel is selected from an elite mix of academics, authors and critics and their tastes don't always resonate with mere mortals like me who pick up a book to be entertained(shock!horror!)
But as a recognition springboard for authors whose work would otherwise languish at number 1431 in the best-seller list, it does serve an important function.

BTW, the number 1431 wasn't plucked out of thin air. That was the ranking of J.M.Coetzee's Disgrace on the best-seller list before his Booker win catapulted it to No.6.

Recommend me a book you feel is interesting and I'll give it
a go. Do NOT wrap it in a "Best Novel Of The last 25 years" sheen,
weigh it down with a Booker and critical plaudits and Fed-Ex it
to me with a "Must Read" label slapped on to it for good measure.

Anonymous said...

Had a side swipe at this myself, with the play 'Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?', see