A Step In The Dark For Man Booker Prize
As the Man Booker Prize for literature announces its annual long list, it has once more made headlines for taking an unusual step.
The Booker is one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world (I would include it in a list that features the Pulitzer, Nobel and Neustadt awards) but it has not always made good choices, from its criteria for selection to the decision to insert a sponsor name in the title (you don’t hear about the ‘Google Pulitzer’).
Britain alone has at least 30 national literary awards, often in specific genres.
US writers won the last two Man Booker prizes after the award was opened up to authors from outside the UK and Commonwealth – an unwelcome move considering most US prizes are closed to outsiders unless they are specifically international, and given the size of the country.
But the Booker has often been controversial in the past. It started in 1969, and although in those first five years Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Patrick White were all nominated, not only have many of the other nominees been forgotten, like Barry England, GM Williams and Terence Wheeler, but even some of the winners have disappeared from the collective memory.
The Booker had an age-old problem; how to balance literary excellence with readability. It was very fond of stream-of-consciousness novels that nobody bought. Bernice Rubens won the Booker in 1970 for a psychedelic tale of an amphetamine addict, ‘The Elected Member’. The Booker was accused of trying too hard to represent zeitgeist works.
In 1974 Stanley Middleton, a church organist and reporter for the Sunday Times, won for ‘Holiday’, a novel centering on a lecturer at a seaside resort. Apart from its obvious quality, it seems to have appealed to the judges because books that took place within the mind of a character were very much in vogue. Middleton later refused an OBE because he felt he was just doing his job.
In 2006 the opening chapter of his novel was resubmitted to publishers along with that of VS Naipaul’s Booker winner ‘In A Free State’. Only one agent felt ‘Holiday’ was publishable, while none wanted Naipaul’s work.
Clearly, the Bookers were worried about public image; Too obscure, too fashionable, too impenetrable – the British press had a go at them whatever they did, so subsequent juries played it safe.
For the next few years, tried and tested literary names won the prize – until the all-but-unknown Anita Brookner upset the apple cart by winning for ‘Hotel Du Lac’. Readers turned into a living Bateman cartoon of shock and awe. It was readable, it was light and it wasn’t a thousand pages long!
What’s shocking now is to look at the nominees and winners and realise who lost; David Mitchell, Sarah Waters (twice), Beryl Bainbridge (twice), Ali Smith (three times). Another flirtation with readability saw Hilary Mantel win twice for a continuation of the same book.
In 2016 it appeared that the Bookers might have gone back to courting fashion by rewarding Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’, a coruscating, motor-mouthed satire about a black man who reintroduces slavery into his neighbourhood, described by the chair of the judges as ‘a novel of our times’. Zeitgeist was back. It has already dated.
Now comes the news that on the latest longlist – shepherded by the wise and wonderful Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, who needs no introduction in these pages – there’s a graphic novel, ‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso.
Graphic novels can win the Pulitzer, Hugo, Ignatz, Kirby and a dozen other awards. They have not made the Booker list before. ‘Sabrina’ has made the longlist, but it’s unusual in that the artist is also the writer. The problem still exists that artwork, like opera and music, is a way of providing something words can’t do alone. One can’t exist without the other.
‘Sabrina’ concerns a family trauma presented in a mundane, everyday style rather like the how-to instructions on an appliance, that reminded me a lot of ‘Jimmy Corrigan’ (below). Like ‘Corrigan’ it is diagrammatic and dispassionate, and analyses the small details of life to illustrate its bigger theme.
McDermid, who has fought long and hard to have genre fiction accepted in the mainstream, together with her fellow judges, has made a good call here. Admittedly it’s only the longlist, and perhaps the point has been made by it being included at all. Stories are stories.
Awards are, by their very nature, bizarrely unnatural. I can’t say with any conviction that one book is ‘better’ than another, just different. Some of the finest writers I know have never made any awards list. Usually if I’m nominated it’s in a very specific sub-category. Very few awards matter to the public but they affect the writers, who are validated.