Prized or Prejudiced

7th October 2011

In the furore surrounding the judges’ final decision, Clare Finney questions whether the Man Booker Prize is really worth the hype

ONE MIGHT EASILY call it the holy grail of the contemporary novel. On 16 October, one lucky author will receive £50,000, worldwide publicity, soaring sales, and the ultimate accolade of being declared the best writer of 2011. The announcement will be received with fevered excitement from readers and writers alike. Already, as I write, the tension is building: the longlist has now been hacked to a shortlist, Alan Hollinghurst has been unceremoniously booted, and bookies have hurried to adjust their odds accordingly. Column inches have become column yards with the news.

So, in light of its eminence and life-changing implications, one might assume that judging the Man Booker prize would be a rather complex process. Perhaps it involves national polls and extensive research, and an intellectual yardstick like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

Alas, there is no such democracy. In reality, what will come to be almost universally accepted as the best book of the year will begin its life as the best book according to a literary critic, a novelist, an academic, a literary editor and a political figure: a group which, while no doubt eminently qualified in all things literature, might not always quite achieve the ‘balance between gender, articulacy and role’ to which Man Booker lays claim.

Take this year, for example: writer and journalist Matthew d'Ancona, author Susan Hill, author and Labour MP Chris Mullin and Gaby Wood, Head of Books at the Daily Telegraph, headed up and chaired by former director of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington. Needless to say, eyebrows have risen – not least because Rimington is a prolific writer of detective fiction. You don’t have to be a detective yourself to spot a correlation between the thriller-heavy shortlist and the number of judges who like crime novels. Yet the snide comments that this has inspired, though, are nothing compared to the out-and-out uproar that has occurred over, and within, judging panels past.

In 2005, The Independent’s Literary Editor, Boyd Tonkin, expressed outrage that Professor John Sutherland, “an inaccurate and impenitent leaker of our panel discussions [when they were both judges in 1999], has been rewarded for his imprecisions by elevation to the chairman's role.” Five years before, The Daily Telegraph’s editor, Peregrine Worsthorne, wrote that the decision to make Tory MP George Walden the chair was “too bad to be true”. Such spats had their merit, in that their sound and their fury garnered much press coverage in the run up to judgment day. But they also had the effect of stealing the limelight from the poor author that actually won. As Tonkin noted in the year of Worsthorne v Walden, “the winner, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, was somewhat overshadowed by the row.”

Thus, while it is as yet untainted by suspicions of corruption, each year the Man Booker judging panel inevitably gives rise to unhealthy criticisms of arrogance and bias. For many, the very notion that one person’s personal opinion can be deemed to be superior to another’s is inherently elitist, regardless of their professional occupation. How can such a personal and intimate experience as reading be judged on any reliably standardised scale? Surely a novel can be as meaningful to a builder as it is to a critic?

In the past most judges have stood by the Alain de Botton school of thought that the Man Booker is “not the WH Smith thumping good read award”, but something more academic. Others cite FR Leavis’s belief that the study of literature should not concern matters of sociology or contemporary politics. Yet with recent shortlists being chock-full of novels whose readability and contemporaneity is used to justify their selection, this is an argument that looks increasingly strained.

Urban gang culture (Pigeon English). Espionage in Putin’s Russia (Snowdrops). The bitter taste of an unfulfilled middle class life (The Sense of an Ending). All very now. Of the six novels shortlisted, only three are set in a time other than now – Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie – and not one of the list could be said to be hard work. If former judge and critic Rick Gekoski is right, and judging the Man Booker prize is about “attempting to select and to distinguish what is abidingly excellent from that which is not”, then perhaps leaving it to the experts is fair enough. If, on the other hand, you’re just after a well-written yarn, isn’t it time they asked around?

If they did, they’d find that our appreciation of a book is not determined by such high-minded measures, but by our past experiences, our relationships, our personalities and other areas unique to the individual. Even our ideas as to what constitutes good writing – the raison d'être of the Man Booker – are formed by our education and personal taste, so that the assertion that there is a ‘best book’ judged by people who ‘know best’ simply reinforces the popular view of reading as the preserve of the wealthy and educated.

Yet there is another side to this argument, one which all the weeping and whooping that greets 16 October’s prizewinning dinner inadvertently tends to disguise. In the wave of populist chick-lit and cheap thrillers, the Man Booker long list remains the hallmark of an author writing for some deeper reason than material gain. Academics, English students and others who have lost faith in the bestseller lists are far more likely to be persuaded into buying a new book by the intellectual arguments of Susan Hill than they are by Richard and Judy, no matter how intellectually stimulating Confessions of a Shopaholic or The Devil Wears Prada might turn out to be. After all, the Booker winners often become the books that appear on our children’s curriculum. Surely we want a better arbiter for that than simply what sells well?

In such cases, the air of exclusivity and academia surrounding the judging process is intrinsic to the value of the award. Indeed, the global nature of the Man Booker’s influence is largely owed to the literary world. Judges are chosen after recommendations from the Man Booker Advisory Committee, which includes an author (who this year is also Secretary of the Royal Society of Literature), two publishers, an agent, two booksellers, a librarian, a literary editor and representatives of the Man Group and Man Booker plc. When it comes to literature, they know their tropes from their tautologies.

Perhaps, then, the problem with the Man Booker is not the prize, nor the process, but the hysteria with which the winning novel is received. With great accolade comes great fame, as the frenzied international coverage in the media shows; and with that comes a fortune far bigger than the prize-winning sum of £50,000. Not only is the winner guaranteed an astronomical increase in sales, but there is also a ripple effect in the form of soaring global sales of their other books, plus guaranteed future publishing contracts, and offers of film and TV rights. Former loser Julian Barnes had good reason to deride it as “El Gordo, the Fat One, the sudden jackpot that enriches some plodding Andalusian muleteer” – although he may find himself regretting the remark now he’s this year’s bookies’ favorite to win.

And good on him if he does. If you ask me – and no one has, or will – he is by far and a long way the best of the bunch. But if, come 16 October, the coveted king of prizes crowns someone else, I shall take comfort in the fact that, for all the furore, the Man Booker is but the compromised favourite of the few.

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