The Man Booker prize: bastion of brilliance or soured accolade?

Image: Hot Milk front cover
Image: wikimediacommons
Image: WikiCommons

My favourite part of being a bookseller is the books. This may sound like an incredibly obvious and inarticulate statement, but it really is enthralling when books are released; I love following books’ journey, seeing what sells and what doesn’t, what matches expectations and what becomes a new favourite. The beauty of this is that the cycle never ends. There is always a new release to obsess over, a new paperback wedged onto the table.

The pique of this excitement is Man Booker Prize season, and it excites me like nothing else in the book world. Even before I was a bookseller, being handed a list of the finest, most creative and most literary novels from the last year was always so compelling. It’s not just that the list is a perfect guide to quality fiction in a market saturated by cheap thrills, but it creates a national discourse on contemporary fiction that few literary events can rival in scope or hype. Booksellers take wagers, readers cry out passionate endorsements or scathing denunciations and the authors get a well-deserved moment of attention that the market often denies them.

The Booker is, by all appearances, an overwhelmingly positive thing for the literary world. Since 1968, the prize has sought out and celebrated the finest in commonwealth fiction, changing in 2013 to expand eligibility to any English-language book published in the UK.

Not only does it provide a catalogue of fine books that greatly benefits the readers of contemporary fiction, but it has profound repercussions on book shops, publishing houses and individual authors, all of whom profit from a welcome boost in revenue during an age where the attention paid to the printed word seems to slip constantly. What is the Booker then but a pioneering force, serving to invigorate the book industry, inspire creative innovation from authors and constantly renew interest in a noble industry?

Yet it appears that the Booker Prize faces fundamental foundational issues. When A. L. Kennedy, an author longlisted for this year’s prize, judged the award in 1996, she infamously castigated the system, claiming the winner is selected based upon “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who [and] whose turn it is.” Whilst it’s claimed that Kennedy’s quarrel was due to dissatisfaction with the victory of Graham Swift’s Last Orders, Kennedy’s comments echo an insidious criticism that has haunted the prize for years.

It’s easy to make the case that the prize has reached its expiration date; its short lists are incestuous and its longlists predictable. Hilary Mantel’s two individual prizes for two books in the same series surely strengthens the criticism of awarding the same formulaic prose year after year. Is the Man Booker Prize now nothing more than an industry tool, an author’s rite of passage into the contemporary literary canon that bears no relevance to the individual reader and fails to align even slightly with the original intention of the prize (to award the best original novel)? It’s easy to fall prey to this belief. In an industry dominated by consumer giants Amazon and Waterstones, one can easily shrug off the charm of the book world to reveal the capitalist beast beneath. The prize assumes its place as nothing more than a marketing mechanism.

Indeed, this journalistic derision is hardly innovative; every year, the prize receives a fresh wave of critique for the judges it picks, the books that did (or didn’t) make the longlist and the final winner. But in truth, this year’s shortlist seems to push against Kennedy’s claims of critical inbreeding. Most of the authors are first-time nominees who reflect a judging panel that has compiled its selections based upon expansive and broad investigation into contemporary releases. The diversity of the countries the novels come from in itself represents the progressive movement of the prize, which is moving toward a focus upon quality fiction from around the globe.

Although Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk follows in the footsteps of earlier short-listings for the author, any attempts at suggesting this nomination as being Bloomsbury Group-esque in its exclusivity are quelled by the fact that it is a truly stunning book. It’s a poetic masterpiece and one of my favourites to win.

Moreover, the shortlisting of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project defies all criticisms made of the prize; produced by the crime division of a minor Scottish publisher, its selection represents a breadth of examination that is completely antithetical to claims of exclusivity that are perpetuated by critics of the award.

I have no doubt that some years have featured deep-rooted bias and shady decisions, whilst in others, the competition has run with the integrity and values with which it was established. And with all fairness to the award, it has gotten much better. Perhaps it’s the heightened media attention, the regulation of Twitter keyboard warriors and a keener eye upon the judges and their decisions, but the choices seem much more organic.

Whatever the ins and outs of the prize, I remain an addict. Whenever a gap in my reading list appears, it is to past Booker shortlists that I turn. The prize may have industry incentive and a history of insular activity, but it remains one of the landmark champions of contemporary fiction. However problematic it may be, I’ll be desperately refreshing Twitter on 25 October to find out which author will join the pantheon of great modern writers.

In the end, I’m just a bitter bookseller who isn’t over the fact that Marlon James ousted Hanya Yanagihara.


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