literary

Man Booker 2015: Let the Literary Rumpus Begin

Man Booker

With the 2015 Man Booker Dozen announced, the book world awaits the next literary rumpus.

Call me cynical, but from where I’m sitting, there are more than a few top contenders for this year’s Man Booker media storm.

Up first: The Americans have arrived.

It’s the second year of the new rules allowing all writers in English and published in the UK to take part, regardless of nationality – something the press release repeatedly emphasizes and the longlist of nominees throws into sharp relief. Five of the thirteen are from the US, whilst only one lonely Antipodean, New Zealander Anna Smaill, made the cut this year. This means there are half as many Commonwealth authors than last year, confirming the fears of writers like Peter Carey, AS Byatt and Graham Swift. They, amongst others, criticized the decision to make award more global. It would dilute the ‘real Commonwealth culture’ of the prize, they warned, and potentially lead to American writers steamrolling new talent from smaller English-speaking nations.

A second avenue of dissention could be the notable absence of bookie favourites from the longlist. Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, William Boyd and Salman Rushdie are all names tripped out of a race where many critics held them as forerunners. The Telegraph, which apparently placed all it’s bets on Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, seems particularly disgruntled.

And a third, though perhaps less likely, could be the apparent dominance of women writers – seven out of thirteen – that will please many today, irk more tomorrow, and inevitably create headlines. This will partly be thanks to a survey showing women are less likely to win prizes. Especially if their protagonist is also a woman. Why predict that any of these things become controversial? Because if people think the hyper-competitive world of publishing is bloodthirsty, the write-or-die mentality of literary prizes feels like a knife-edge.

As usual the media has a stake in the whole affair.

Who has been left off the list, who should not win, who should win but won’t: these are the stories understood by cultural commentators. Therefore scandal, controversy, ridicule wrapped in newsprint become the languages spoken by prize givers. As noted by Mark Lawson in 1994, ‘the Booker Prize is not simply “to promote the cause of serious fiction . . . [but] to provoke rows and scandals, which may, in due course, promote the cause of serious fiction’.

In other words, media outrage makes books worthy of public attention. And a crisis can turn just another book on the shelf into a best seller. If you need further proof of this just ask EL James. Or Ian McEwan. Or John Banville. Or JK Rowling.

All in all, anyone with a bookish bone in their body will be wondering where the first stone shall fall and what ripples it will create.

It would almost be disappointing if there wasn’t at least some hint of literary dispute.

After all, 2015 has five years of excitement to compete with. In 2014, when all eyes narrowed on the two American names included on the longlist, hopes turned to Neel Mukherjee whose nomination was marketed as the last bastion of Commonwealth writers. The year prior, news focused on the fact Colm Toibin’s novella of 104 pages seemed ludicrous against Eleanor Catton’s mammoth debut with debate reflecting on whether something so short could really compete. Looking back further to 2012, Hillary Mantel’s second win piqued interest and dismay, with furious observers accusing the prize of dumbing itself down – “How could a sequel possibly be more original than a standalone like Will Self’s Umbrella?” they harped.

And of course, all that followed the biggest scandal in recent awards history; 2011’s ‘readability’ criteria was praised by judges but led to the creation of the Folio Prize (the book world’s version of a challenger brand) and the accusation that the Man Booker had lost its ability to discern ‘fiction at its finest’.

Yet all of the books involved in these scandals, the ones that won and the ones people thought should have won instead, all sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

In fact, five of the last six winners have gone on to earn their publishers a seven-figure sum (and rising) and several shortlisted books (Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap come to mind) have achieved the same.

Looking at the Man Booker this way, it becomes evident how a well-controlled ‘crisis’ creates visibility, celebrity, prestige.

Primed to create and mediate such a seemingly endless turnstile of scandal, awards like the Man Booker therefore thrive precisely because they are masters of public relations.

By capturing the general public’s attention through a bit of a hullabaloo, prizes open new eyes to fiction. Moreover, it explains why prizes as preeminent as the Nobel, as highbrow as the Goncourt and as inclusive as the Costa have followed the Man Booker’s trend and partaken in the odd bookish brouhaha.

Because the commercial impact is undeniable in the publishing industry.

Because, as James English explained, it allows prize givers to walk the fault line between cultural and economic capital.

Because rewarding writers, creating books that sell, bestowing cultural value, is why landing one of those coveted spots on a long- or shortlist can mean life or death for a book – particularly if it’s the sort that’s not piled high in the supermarket, invited to the top tables in bookshops, or advertised on the side of buses.

In the immediate, there’s a lot of positive energy surrounding the longlist.

Congratulations for the chosen thirteen are pouring in. Headlines applaud the diversity of the selection, the dominance of women, and representation of so many international writers.

Tomorrow, no doubt, there will be interviews and reviews and people will start to chime in with their thoughts on who should win.

How long the positivity will last, however – how long before someone finds a less favourable and more profitable opinion to espouse – remains to be seen.

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