The lessons of the Booker Prize 2012
So the dust settles on another Man Booker Prize, leaving what? At the very least the sense that some balance has been restored after the toe-curling embarrassment of 2011, when Stella Rimington bravely waved the flag of “readability” only to run with her judges to hide behind the modest protection of Julian Barnes’ novella The Sense of an Ending.
In the words of this year’s chair, Sir Peter Stothard, he wasn’t so much against novels that people “could read on a beach” as for novels “that they would not leave behind on the beach.”
In fact, this year’s judges may well have picked the most conventionally ‘readable’ book of their shortlist. If they’d really wanted to stick two fingers up to the middle ground they’d have chosen Will Self’s Umbrella, a stream-of-consciousness experiment that starts: “I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man . . . Along comes Zachary, along from the porter’s lodge, where there’s a trannie by the kettle and the window is cracked open so that Muswell Hill calypso warms the cold Friern Barnet morning,” and continues in the same vein, with barely a paragraph break, for 400 pages.
This they didn’t do. They went for Hilary Mantel’s Bringing Up The Bodies, a choice that was at once predictable and surprising. Predictable, because Mantel is an established and well-respected writer, and because she has form, having already won the Booker in 2009 with Wolf Hall. And surprising, because, although the Booker has shown itself quite happy to re-crown past winners, giving the prize twice to both JM Coetzee and Peter Carey, those writers had at least a decade, and a handful of other books, between their two prizes. Bringing Up The Bodies not only follows Wolf Hall by just three years, with no books coming between them, it is a continuation of the same project, a trilogy of novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell.
Were the judges then giving a second prize for what is essentially the same book? Not according to Stothard, who made it clear in his speech that Bodies surpassed Wolf Hall for literary excellence. And what could be a stronger message that this is what the Booker is about?
After all, the last three years has seen the prize go to long-respected, long-established, sadly-overlooked writers like Howard Jacobson, Julian Barnes and, er… Hilary Mantel. It even got the point that some of these awards began to look like consolation prizes, or lifetime achievement awards. (The worst example of this was Ian McEwan’s throwaway ‘entertainment’ Amsterdam, winner in 1998, the year after the far more substantial Enduring Love was ignored.) Giving the prize to Self – though he’s 10 years younger than Mantel, 20 younger than Jacobson – might have smacked of using the Booker as a welcoming in to the establishment, like a Literary Fiction ‘Hall of Fame’.
This, they didn’t do. They gave it to someone already firmly in the Booker fold. And nor did the prize go to one of the independent publishers that gave us the lion’s share of the six shortlisted books. Leave out the ‘big indies’ of Bloomsbury (Self’s Umbrella) and Faber & Faber (Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis), and plenty of readers were given their first taste of Salt Publishing (Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse), the subscription-based And Other Stories (Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home), and Myrmidon Books (Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists).
You could argue that, if the judges wanted to use the prize to celebrate the emergence of a new generation of small publishers looking to find new ways to exist in the cracks and crannies of a slowly collapsing… I mean evolving industry, then they did that admirably with their indie-heavy shortlist. Giving the prize to a book from an indie would certainly have meant a great deal to that one publisher, but it would hardly have helped any of the others.
They didn’t do this. They gave the prize to the sole corporate-owned imprint of the six, Fourth Estate, part of Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins. No, if Salt, Myrmidon and And Other Stories – and other such small publishers – are still around, and getting books on shortlists, in two, five, 10 years, then perhaps the 2012 Man Booker judges can take a smidgen of credit for giving a timely boost to that particular success story.
Finally, the judges gave the award to the book that had already sold the most copies –105,000 to the end of September, more than the rest of the longlist combined.
So, the lesson of the Man Booker Prize 2012. The Booker is not an award for readability, it is not an award for experimentation, it is not an award for promoting undersung writers or brilliant, deserving publishers, nor is it a carriage clock for long service. (If you want prizes for any of those, go and set them up yourself.) It is an award for literary excellence, which, of all those things, is absolutely the hardest to pin down, and the easiest to argue about. Which is where the fun begins…Tagged in: Booker prize, Bringing Up The Bodies, Hilary Mat, julian barnes, man booker prize, Peter Stothard, The Sense of an Ending, will self, wolf hall
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