October 13, 2010

What worth an award?


Who cares about the bloody prize, listen to this...

Who cares about the bloody prize, listen to this...

As we’ve already reported, Lee Rourke‘s The Canal is the co-winner of The Guardian‘s Not The Booker prize alongside Matthew Hooton‘s Deloume Road. It’s been a grand year so far for Rourke and indie/underground literary prizes. He has now won Opium’sLiterary Death Match – London,” the first round of Amazon UK’s “Rising Stars” contest, and now 50% of the Not The Booker

The “Not the Booker” prize was awarded in a purely democratic fashion and like most democracies it was far from amicable–indeed, it often turned downright nasty. Sam Jordison, the event’s moderator, lone literary critic, and sole authority figure was so displeased with the initial “Not The Booker” shortlist that he called for a recount in hopes that another, more conventional, list of titles be considered. When the original shortlist was again selected, Jordison proceeded to write scathing reviews of each title, his critical tone wavering between vague dismissal (“I was less than convinced by this story of family dysfunction and feline fantasy.”) and snide condescension ( “Written for teenagers –one hopes — this novel reminded me why I avoided such books even as an adolescent.”).

(His review of The Canal, while grudgingly admiring, tended to damn with faint praise: “If you want ennui, you’re still better off sticking with the French. But that’s not to say that Rourke doesn’t have plenty to offer.”

Even in his Not The Booker award presentation, Jordison remained dismissive of the contest, displeased with the winners, and disparaging of the voters. “The quality of the novels,” he writes, “has played second fiddle to the quantity of names in the contact books of those promoting them.” He concludes by saying, “[O]ne of the most interesting conclusions that many seem to have drawn is that the prizes they generally viewed as stuffy and traditionalist might not be so bad, after all.” Surely, Jordison seems to suggest, The Booker judges must be above all the ugly politics and social networking of the riffraff.

In response, I’d like to point out that The Booker itself–like all literary prizes–is the imperfect result of literary bickering, in-fighting, and vote wrangling by semi-arbitrary judges with highly subjective concepts of literary worth. As evidence, I present The Guardian‘s own delightfully illuminating article in which former Booker judges describe the behind-the-scenes power struggles and petty squabbles leading up to each Booker prize. Here are a few characteristic quotes:

Ion Trewin (1974):

At the shortlist meeting, Jane [Howard] remarked that she thought Ending Up by Kingsley Amis (then her husband) was his best book and should go on the shortlist.

Susan Hill (1975):

Roy Fuller was not the easiest man to work with. He was acerbic and disliked being contradicted, and when it came to choosing a shortlist he refused to join in.

Francis King (1976):

Mary Wilson, a lover of poetry and herself an artless but often touching poet, was at the disadvantage of having read few novels in the course of her life – so that she was clearly puzzled when I referred to one of the submissions as “Kafkaesque”.

Beryl Bainbridge (1977):

I put my vote forward… but the discussion on it lasted only about three minutes, because it was such a short book. So nobody was really interested in that. All I can remember of the final meeting is that I got terribly tired, I literally sank lower and lower under the table.

Derwent May (1978)

In 1978, all the five jury members had a different first choice, and they were all sticking to it. Suddenly someone suggested a compromise candidate that we all quite liked, but it seemed to me that we were now heading for disaster. Freddie Ayer, the chairman, had more or less pulled out, saying that the only novels he enjoyed reading were crime novels. So I went round the jury…and said to them in turn “Is this book your first choice?” All, rather sheepishly, said “No”

Hilary Spurling (1979):

We’d spent the entire afternoon at loggerheads, and in the end compromised by giving the prize to everybody’s second choice, Penelope Fitzgerald‘s small, slight, melancholy but beautifully judged and executed Offshore. Her recently published collected letters make it clear that her triumph – and the general incredulity that greeted it – caused her humiliation ever after.

Paul Bailey (1982):

There are many things I regret doing, and being a judge for the Booker prize is one of them. For some years after I was associated with two novels I absolutely loathed and would not have even started reading in other circumstances.

David Lodge (1989):

[T]he overtly competitive nature of these prizes, heightened by the publication of longlists and shortlists, takes its psychological toll on writers; and, given the large element of chance in the composition and operation of judging panels, the importance now attached to prizes in our literary culture seems excessive. A committee is a blunt instrument of literary criticism.

Hilary Mantel (1990):

I’m glad I was a Booker judge relatively early in my career. It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horsetrading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.

James Wood (1994):

[T]he absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins.

I could go on, but I think my point is pretty clear. The Booker Prize should be remembered mostly as an occasion for faulty decisions, shameless compromise, and remorse. There is no perfect system to separate the wheat from the chaff, and no rarified council that can pluck diamonds from the dross. Jordison’s denigration of the Not The Booker as a “wrangling contest” and praise for the Booker itself merely demonstrates how little he understands the true nature of the aesthetic battleground.

Do the best books win? Usually no. Does this mean that literary prizes are meaningless? Not necessarily. In the case of the Not The Booker, the prize means that The Canal and Deloume Road are novels that, for whatever reasons, attract extremely passionate, vocal, and loyal readers. That is all. And that is probably enough.

Despite their glaring flaws, the consequences of these literary prizes is undeniable. For the Booker, even when the judges fight and compromise, the effects are tremendous in terms of sales, prestige, and attention. For the Not The Booker it’s more difficult to say–though sales for The Canal did rise noticeably after the announcement. In the words of Marina Warner, yet another disillusioned Booker Prize judge, “I think that the best argument for the whole cruel and unfair business of prizes is that they can lead readers to writers who wouldn’t otherwise be read much or perhaps at all.” We couldn’t agree more.