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What is the point of the Booker Prize?

booker prize

As it celebrates its 50th birthday this weekend, the award continues to polarise opinion like few others. Here, two critics draw swords

The case for

By Sam Leith

"Elitist”, “dumbed-down”, “an annual pseudo-event”, “posh bingo”. In its 50 years of existence, the Man Booker Prize has been called many unpleasant things, most of them contradictory. It’s random, or it’s a stitch-up; it’s too highbrow, or it’s too lowbrow; it’s too politically correct, or it’s not politically correct enough.

Ignore all that. To my mind the Man Booker Prize absolutely deserves its status as the world’s foremost prize for literary fiction. Or to put it another way: if you were trying to come up with a prize to reward the best novel in English in a given year, how would you do it any differently?

2017 Booker winner George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo Credit: PA

In the first place, it has the unique merit among prizes of its standing that all the judges read all the books. That’s usually about 150. This is not without peril for the judges. When I judged it I developed stress-related psoriasis all over my body. Many former judges make muttered references to the effect on their marriages.

Someone, or a team of people, will winnow the submissions before presenting the panel with a shortlist of some sort. But if you are nominated for Man Booker – be you Kazuo Ishiguro or a first-time novelist – the same panel of judges will read your book, and the collective critical sensibility that anoints the eventual winner will be brought to bear on yours.

Here, in effect, is a panel of (hopefully) well-qualified and open-minded literary critics reading (hopefully) the best English-language books published in the UK that year and coming up with 13 recommendations, then six, then one.

Second, Booker has a remit that makes sense. It is for English novels. This is a single (albeit a marvellously elastic) genre. The Costa Book Awards compare poetry with biography with fiction with children’s books. The Folio Prize has fiction and non-fiction competing together. I’m not knocking these other awards, but the relative coherence of the Man Booker brief seems to me a virtue.

There has been much griping and moaning about “letting the Americans in”. But readers don’t much care what the author’s passport says, and in literary terms it makes absolute sense that the remit of the prize should be the language rather than a semi-defunct trading bloc created by an accident of colonial history.

Should we have prizes at all? Isn’t it a dumb idea? Well: yes and no. The stupidest objection of all – it’s “subjective” –  can be ignored. Obviously there’s no objective way of giving a prize for literary merit. And it doesn’t claim to be an arbiter of literary posterity: it just says, here’s what five serious people thought between them was best. And that helps publicise good books, make careers, buy writers time to write and help publishers publish them.

It serves publishers, and it serves writers. But it serves publishers and writers as an ancillary effect: it is only able to do so because it serves readers. Were readers not interested in the winner, there would be no “Booker bounce” in sales. Some years many people will think it gets it wrong; some years it will seem to many people to get it right. But each judging panel takes on a wider slice of a coherent literary scene, with more earnestness of purpose, than the panel for any other prize. We’re the better for it.

The case against

By Jake Kerridge

In 2007, Robert Harris, the great thriller writer, Robert Harris denounced the Man Booker Prize as “evil” – quite a claim from a man who has written so extensively about Nazis. One of his complaints was that the shortlisted books “are all written in the same way. They are elegant, elegiac, but dull and dry. They do not connect with their readers. They are just deadening to read.”

The 2008 Booker judges Credit: Stephen Lock

The idea that the Booker has been responsible for a proliferation of samey, reader-unfriendly books is somewhat reinforced when one watches the prizegiving ceremony, on those occasions when the BBC troubles to broadcast it. Watching those slightly identikit novelists in their best bib and tucker, placidly munching through the delicious Guildhall food and politely applauding the speeches of the corporate sponsors, you would be forgiven for forgetting that the qualities for which the English-language novel is most celebrated are rollicking comedy, turbulent passion and subversive satire.

When Timothy Mo was shortlisted in 1986 for his novel An Insular Possession, he left the dinner before the prizegiving started, feeling that “If I’d stayed behind, I might have misbehaved, pulled out the tablecloth or something like that… It’s such a humiliating ordeal for the poor, trembling authors, who have to sit there with their tongues hanging out.”

Some of today’s shortlisted writers must feel like Mo at least some of the time. But they are aware that Booker-blessed books hog the sales of the kind of novel they write; and these days they are contractually obliged to publicly support the prize if shortlisted.

Kingsley Amis Credit: rex

So no tablecloths are pulled and the ceremony is always boring. The Booker equivalent of Jarvis Cocker mooning Michael Jackson at the Brits was Kingsley Amis saying he would spend the prize money on booze and curtains when he won back in 1986.

The problem with the Booker is the deadly pall of worthiness it casts over “literary fiction”. ​​However good the shortlisted books are, the Booker imprimatur ​ends up giving us​ ​sanction​ed ​satire​ or pre-approved passion, and ​what’s the point of that?​

When I asked John le Carré a few years ago why he didn’t allow his novels to be submitted for the Booker or other prizes, he replied that he had no desire to be “promoted to the Sixth Form of literature,”, and there is undoubtedly an off-putting whiff of the prefect’s badge about the prize.

Science fiction, crime and other genre fiction, however good, rarely gets near the longlist, with the result that, as Robert Harris put it, the Booker “encourages and fosters the difference between supposed ‘literary’ novels and other perfectly good books”.

One supposes that, as a genre writer, he was complaining about a prize that refused to take his excellent work seriously. And, yet, now it seems that this artificially created divide is working against literary fiction, with sales in freefall as readers buy genre fiction in ever greater numbers.

The prize has done a fine job of boosting the sales of (some) literary fiction. But it is now starting to look as though the Booker, along with such other mid-century inventions as plastic and nuclear weapons, was a quick fix that has caused more problems than it has solved.