Man Booker Prize: Not About Literary Value?

Like every other book blogger in the Western Hemisphere, I’m here today to chew over the Man Booker Prize shortlist, announced yesterday. Here it is:

Aravind Adiga — The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry — The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh — Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant — The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher — The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz —  A Fraction of the Whole

Two first time novelists, one woman, and no Rushdie.

The two first-timers, Aravind Adiga and Steve Toltz, are currently getting the best odds, though how the bookies calculate these things I have no idea. Here’s a link to The Guardian’scondensed read” version of the books. And here’s an absolutely fascinating article, also from The Guardian, in which Man Booker judges from previous years talk about their experiences. Warning, folks: It ain’t pretty.

Fist fights, politics, authors getting dismissed out of hand, deals being struck. A judge threatening to throw himself off a balcony. Another resigning in a huff. Bitter arguments. And very little actual literary discussion, it seems. This, from judges of an award that The New York Times says is “…considered by many to be the most prestigious award for literary fiction in the English-speaking world.” Here are some teasers from The Guardian article:

George Steiner, a judge from 1972, called his whole Booker experience “very grim.”

Paul Bailey from 1982 said: “There are many things I regret doing, and being a judge for the Booker prize is one of them.” He also calls the award process “…a perfect recipe for envy, back-biting and self-glorification.”

Hilary Mantel, from 1990, says: “‘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 great literary critic James Wood, a judge from 1994, has this to offer: “Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just as the flypaper occasionally catches some really large flies. But it means – or should mean – nothing in literary terms.”

Ouch! And it goes on:

Jonathan Coe, 1996: “Anyone who sets great store by the choices of Booker prize panels should remember this: the process consists of nothing more rigorous than five people sitting in a room together for a few hours, swapping personal opinions.”

Several judges claim that they started reading more nonfiction after being forced to plow through so many novels. Several also say that no one ever changes their mind about their choices, and it all comes down to a numbers game. It’s not all bad — some of the judges seemed to have enjoyed the experience, and believed in the process, and even (shock! horror!) supported the final choice. But I don’t think anyone who reads this article could look on the literary prize-giving process in quite the same way afterward.

I certainly feel a little disillusioned, but ultimately, knowledge is power. That’s what it’s like out there, people. Every time you send out work to residencies, for fellowships or awards, or even for MFA applications, a similar process applies. Know that it’s a crap shoot and keep writing and sending out work anyway. That’s the only reasonable response to an unreasonable world.

One good thing I got from from the article: recommondations for two books I haven’t yet read, but which I now intend to (I’ll be adding them to my scarily long Amazon “to buy later” queue). They are JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower — the first is an overlooked “Best of Booker” contender, the second an overlooked non-winner, and both are referenced by enough of the judges to make me think I should check them out. I’ll report back as soon as I get to them. Should be by at least 2010.

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