The Booker “Prize”?

The Man Booker Prize has always struck me as exciting yet a tad ruthless. Narrowing down the year’s literature to a mere handful is certainly useful for the reader, who in the UK alone, sees nearly 200,000 new titles being published annually. Having crowned winners as versatile and popular as Salman Rushdie, Kingsley Amis and Kazuo Ishiguro, it is also certainly not short of prestige. Something however, has always seemed slightly unsettling about the prize to me and speaking to a fellow English student recently helped compound my doubts. Using the phrase “brutal and banal”, my friend argued that the way the Booker judges literature only serves to trivialise and reduce its artistic value. Whilst not being as definite and confident in this viewpoint as he is, I am certainly left to wonder, is there really any true merit to a literary prize that “picks a winner” as the Booker does?

Professing to reward “the very best book of the year”, the Booker Prize sets itself a challenge that it can never achieve. The very concept it is based on, finding a single champion, is totally flawed. Whilst there must be some degree of objectivity in judging literature (we know, for example, that Dan Brown cannot be ranked alongside Leo Tolstoy), it is simply impossible to compare works of fiction that are all of a high quality and differing genres. Take last year’s shortlist: the eventual winner Wolf Hall, a novel centred around Thomas Cromwell, competed with Coetzee’s South African fictionalised memoir of the 1970s Summertime. Both books are wonderfully written, but beyond that, can they really be compared? The very nature of literature with its ability to move and affect its reader relies on the subjectivity and personal experience with which each reader approaches it. How Wolf Hall can be any better a book than Summertime, The Children’s Book, or for that matter any other book of the year, is difficult to decipher especially when the Man Booker Prize, unlike say the Nobel Prize, has no solid judging criteria.

The Booker’s great success story also stems on its purported ability to popularise and bring authors to instant fame. Certainly in the case of Salman Rushdie this seems, at first, to be evident. Winning the prize in 1981 with Midnight’s Children and both the “Booker of Bookers” and “Best of Bookers” in 1993 and 2008, Rushdie’s (pre-fatwa) success is closely linked to the prize. Yet, failing to be short-listed in 2008 with The Enchantress of Florence hasn’t damaged the sales of his book. Ian McEwan and Martin Amis too were omitted from this year’s shortlist – to much media shock – and yet neither reputation has or will suffer. On the other hand, apart from a fleeting few weeks of increased sales, how many people remember James Lever, author of Me Cheeta, who famously penetrated the long list last year with a (admittedly entertaining) novel about a famous chimp?

The proliferation too, of fiction prizes like the Man Booker, suggests to me that there is something wrong with the way that society approaches literature. The Costa Book Awards and the Orange Fiction Prize, amongst others like the Booker Prize, all aim to find a “winner”. Even though these prizes are more specific, that a book can be better than others and “win” a competition seems inherently wrong to me. Competition stretches through society, we’re asked to vote in internet polls for our favourite flavours, and we are obsessed with it in sport, life and in university. But art isn’t subject to the same rules. Each individual work of literature has its own merits, flaws and intricacies. It does not compete with other works but rather flows with them to produce an account of a society in a particular time or to say something that only literature can reveal. Whilst arguably, being long/short-listed is automatically a sign of the success of a Man Booker nominated book, having one sole winner implies that the other books are inferior to the winner. It also results in people only picking up the winning book and overlooking the wealth of riches which the other listed or even unlisted books contain.

Ultimately, I’m not saying that the Man Booker Prize has nothing to offer the literary world. It has picked out some amazing books through its decades of long and short-listing and made literary stars out of its winners. But whilst being nominated for the Booker prize can increase sales rapidly for obscure authors, and bring to the popular domain brilliant works which would otherwise have been overlooked by many passing readers, it does not guarantee that this success will be lasting . Nor does being nominated for the prize have any necessary consequences. More crucially than that though, I think we need to question intensely the notion of literature being a competition and indeed of comparing wide-ranging diverse books against each other with the intention of deciding which is “better”. We all have a favourite book; we all have our own tastes, so why not acknowledge that? If the Man Booker Prize stuck to simply long and short listing however, the sad thing is, we probably just wouldn’t be as interested.

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