Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Booker Prize

The Booker Prize for 2005 was awarded last night. It went to John Banville, for what the Times calls his 'melancholy novel about a childhood reminiscence.' Sounds like a lot of fun.

Frankly, the Booker Prize is of no great interest to me, because many decades of reading have demonstrated that the books which get shortlisted for it are the kind of books which, year in and year out, fail to entertain me in any way shape or form. So I'm not going to say anything more about this year's candidates. If you wish to investigate the matter, you can start with the Times report and move on from there. Acre and acres of comment will appear in every major newspaper and virtually all of the literary blogs: see blogroll to your right.

What I am going to do this morning is reprint an essay on the Booker which I wrote last January; and I'm going to do that for two reasons.

First, the essay provides many reasons as to why we should not, perhaps, take the Booker Prize quite so seriously as many do. And second, the essay has been chosen for inclusion in a kind of 'best of the bloggers' anthology which will be published next month.

The title of the anthology is 2005 Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere, and the editor is Tim Worstall. Publisher is that new outfit, The Friday Project Ltd. The books is already listed on Amazon.co.uk, so you can nip over and pre-order your copy now. It will be essential reading, no doubt.

Incidentally, I see that from Amazon that those who ordered this book also ordered The Big Book of Masturbation and The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust; so tastes are clearly eclectic here.

Meanwhile here is my essay from January last. Its title was:

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 newspaper 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 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.


Adrian Weston said...

Interesting - and I do agree wholeheartedly with you on the absurdities of publishing this throws up. Jill Paton Walsh's The Knowledge of Angels had not found a publisher because she is an acclaimed children's author, so for heaven's sake how could you market her? I mean really, the public wouldn't understand, would they, and as for the trade? They'd be baffled beyond recovery. So she self-published. So she won the Booker. So finally, she got published as an 'adult' writer. More power to her and humble-pie to her publishers. I guess there is one other element to the literary prize stuff, though, which is whether people read the short (or long) list of the prizes: new readers for authors, perhaps? I'm usually completely turned off by the Booker list, but I've gradually come round to the Orange Prize (iknowiknowmobbilephoneseeek) and have found several authors I know I would not have read otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Michael! Friend! Comrade! Forget about the blasted Booker. Why not nominate your own new tome, Essays and Criticism from the Grumpy Old Bookman, for the Blooker? I just read about this new contest at GirlOnDemand.Blogspot.com and you sound like a shoo-in. Info is at http://www.lulublookerprize.com.

Yr friend across the pond,

archer said...

I became a lawyer after many years as a musician, and can attest that it is delightful to be judged by quantity rather than quality. Nobody ever says, "Oh, I'm hiring you because of the profoundly luminous intensity of your firm's past work."

Anonymous said...

Unlike the GOB, I always read Booker winners, and usually a couple of others from the shortlist. I am seldom disappointed, though Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (1984) made me wonder if it was something about me, and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998) struck me as slight by his standards.

What is not to be doubted is that the whole notion of choosing the best novel from any particular year is really pretty daft: you may as well, as Bob Dylan told us decades ago, ‘try and catch the wind.’

This truth was amply demonstrated a few years back, when the very first Booker winner, PH Newby’s Something to Answer For (1969) was offered to publishers under a pseudonym, and universally rejected. From year’s best to unpublishable in a generation. Enough said.

For the record (see Adrian Weston’s comment), Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels (1994) – if you haven’t read it, it’s time you did – was indeed shortlisted for the Booker, but did not win. Its rejection by UK publishers is the more bizarre in view of the fact that it had already been successfully published in the US.

Literary prizes tell us a lot about our culture. The truth is that they are essentially high-profile marketing exercises of a kind that scarcely existed a generation back. For most of us, their main value is as a kind of compass to help us navigate through an ocean of books in which we might otherwise get hopelessly lost: more than 10,000 novels are now published annually in the UK, God help us.

Fifty years ago, a manageable number of novels appeared each year, and winners were effectively chosen by a combination of critical and popular acclaim. Up to a point, this system is still in place. But the marketeers have moved in now, and novelists, like it or not, have become pawns in their cut-throat game.