Friday, March 24, 2006

On the Booker and other literary prizes

Earlier on the blog I ruminated on the idea that the (Man) Booker prize might not have always gone to the best novel on the shortlist. Obviously, this is a subjective matter...which makes it all the more interesting to kick around with readers of contemporary Commonwealth fiction. I wrote up my own thinking on the contest for a few recent years and intend to soon follow up with reflections on earlier years.

And I've been asking around about what others think about Booker winners and losers. I've even gone half-way around the world in search of enlightenment on the question.

Kerryn Goldsworthy runs a blog called "A Fugitive Phenomenon" which is "dedicated to the discussion of Australian literature past and present: information, opinions, gossip, hearsay, scuttlebutt etc." She is extremely well-qualified to take up the question about "bad Booker beats" and did so in a thorough post (click here to read the whole thing) from which I pull a few passages:
I checked out available lists of shortlists and winners and was ashamed to discover that I hadn't read a large enough proportion of them to be able to give a meaningful answer to his question. My excuse is that when one reads for a living, one's reading, while reasonably voluminous, is of necessity shockingly skewed. All I could say for sure was that there were a handful of winners I thought would have deserved the prize no matter what the competition was: Coetzee for Disgrace, Byatt for Possession, Pat Barker for The Ghost Road, Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things and Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Day. Even that list is a tad meaningless, as there are many other winners I've not read. (Which of these Titans woud be the ├╝ber-winner? Could such a choice be made, and if it could, could it possibly mean anything?)
Actually, there is a "Booker of Bookers." Nevertheless, as Kerryn suggests, does it it possibly mean anything? Probably not.

Readers get passionate and writers get vulnerable whenever the topic of prizes comes up. People on judging committees stare at each other in wide-eyed, jaw-dropped disbelief, unable to process whatever mad opinions they have just heard coming out of each others' mouths. Writers who get shortlisted and then don't win are unable to keep up the exultation of getting shortlisted and instead just sulk because someone else beat them.

(Amusingly, sometimes their partners sulk vicariously; you can tell a great deal about what drives a writer's relationship with his or her partner by watching the partner's behaviour on prize nights.)

Are literary prizes a good thing or not? The same arguments tend to get trotted out and rehashed over and over, and I'm usually quite up to arguing sincerely on both sides of the issue. Yes, prizes are bad because they encourage the idea of competition in art (corruptive) as well as the idea that it's possible to come up with an evaluative hierarchy and say with conviction 'This book is better than that book', an activity I dislike. But on the other hand, no, prizes are not a bad thing, because they mean money for writers. Can't go past that one.

Prizes for books are a bad thing, precisely for the reason Kerryn states.

Yet I think they are also a good thing, and that the positive case is stronger than she suggests. For one thing, these contests generate discussion among readers about all the contenders, not only the winners. This argument is strongest for a prize like the Man Booker, where being shortlisted is a blurbable achievement. ("Shortlisted for a Pulitzer" isn't so boastworthy in America.) This added discussion almost certainly means more readers and more sales for the handful of nominated books.

Moreover, readers with too little time--and who has too much time to read?--are made aware of a few books that might otherwise escape their attention. Yes, I realize the greatest injustices are not between the shortlisted and the winner of the prize but rather among the books not shortlisted. But I think the net effect is that more people read more books due to buzz around the prizes.

And that is good for readers as well as for writers.

Kerryn's post has much more to say, particularly about Australian and Southeast Asian Commonwealth fiction. Click over to "A Fugitive Phenomenon" for more.

Click here for a recent post about Booker Prize gossip from the prize's long-time administrator. And click here for my original post about "bad Booker beats."

Thanks to Kerryn Goldsworthy for taking up the question.

--Marshal Zeringue