A prize for fiction or for profit?

The practice of fiction is, as never before, recognised in an almost endless stream of competitions and awards. Even Warwick itself has contributed to the crowded trophy cabinet of the modern author with its Prize for Writing. Yet of all these accolades, few remain as prestigious – both inside and outside of literary circles – as the Man Booker Prize.

Awarded this year to Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question, the writing and tabloid inches which the annual procedure of its awarding spawns is of a prolificacy (and nastiness even) rarely associated with the ‘proper’ business of bookselling. The Booker seems to outdo itself in courting the gaze of mass-market publications who, for the other 51 weeks of the year almost invariably sideline literature and the industry which surrounds it (as evidenced in a media environment which increasingly sees literary editors as the first against the wall in an era of cutbacks).

Famous episodes in the 42-year history of the award have included a judge, Julia Neuberger, describing the 1994 winner, How Late it was, How Late as ‘crap’ and ‘a disgrace’. Moreover, this year’s winner suggested in the past that ‘A man should be ashamed to win the Booker Prize. Given who’s won it, it’s such appalling company’.

Such episodes make the glare of the media spotlight understandable, but what of the impact upon literature itself: is the Booker Prize good for fiction? Or does it merely serve to fuel the fire of speculation, gossip-mongering and baseless publicity whilst doing little to generate genuine interest in literature per se?

There certainly seems to be more than a faint sense of the commercial in the Man Booker over and above the corporate tie-in attached to its naming, which as with other prizes – the Orange Prize for Fiction, for instance –owe both the large cheques given to the winning authors, as well as their names to the corporate sponsors loitering in the background. The announcement of this year’s winner, for instance, benefited Jacobson and his publisher with an unprecedented sales boost of 1920% – the biggest ever increase contributable to the prize since records began.

Even a place on the shortlist is rewarded with a tangible climb in sales – a fact no doubt behind the lettering which litters book jackets proclaiming inclusion in this exclusive (or in Jacobson’s phrasing, appalling) company. Booksellers however tend to remain coy about the blatancy of such sales ploys. Jonathan Ruppin, for instance, an Editor for Foyles bookshop, describes the Booker as ‘one of Britain’s proudest cultural traditions’, neglecting to mention the evident profitability of the annual sideshow for his employer.

Yet it is important that at the same time the commercial underscoring of the Booker is acknowledged that we should not necessarily deride those who benefit. Ultimately, publishers, as with any other business, rely upon sales and it would be unfair to criticise them for this aspiration. It is however, the coyness of the industry to admit such an objective and the subsequent ‘honourable’ objective of awards like the Booker which need to be assessed and called into question here.

Essentially, the Booker Prize boosts sales because its serves as a hallmark of ‘good’ literature. In the hectic modern world the relaxing hobby of reading is often sidelined, and so when it comes to purchasing a book (which may well be only a once-yearly phenomenon) the consumer demands that such a novel be worthy of the time dedicated to it. The Booker then is just such a perfect classification – fitting into the old marketing pledge that if you’re going to buy just one book this year, then you’d better make it this one.

In this sense, the Man Booker democratises fiction – opening it up to an audience who may otherwise shun books. Yet at the same moment it carries out this act of universalising the novel, it also, in turn, disenfranchises the reader and limits the scope of literature. The Prize-winning book, and perhaps those other fortunate few who made the shortlist, are guaranteed success, whilst a heap of equally worthy novels are consigned to the back-end of the bookshop, away from the coveted window-space.

Such relegation is particularly significant given the way in which books are increasingly marketed and sold. The old method of perusing a bookshop and choosing from a range of novels is itself becoming increasingly archaised in favour of the Amazon-style ‘Other books which you may like’. At least the Booker’s recommendation is the result of extensive ‘human’ research, rather than an arbitrary computer programme, yet still the result is similar. As book-buyers, we are increasingly being told what is good and what we will like rather than empowering ourselves with the decision-making process.

‘Supermarket’ fiction also contributes to this problem, with megastores such as Tesco selling a select range of fiction, guaranteed of success (or profit), without a sideways glance at other books. Whilst it’s unlikely in such shops that even a Booker winner can push off the competition of Katie Price’s latest ghost-written ‘effort’, the phenomenon is still comparable.

In the very act of singling out books, there are plenty of other titles which fall away. This isn’t strictly the fault of the Booker, or indeed any other literary prize, yet the praiseworthy function they perform in rewarding authors and promoting literature is also tinged with the negative side-effect of undermining the democracy of literature, rewarding the ‘very best’ and offering nothing as a consolation. In such a climate the danger of both publisher and reader overlooking a genuinely worthwhile and unsung book becomes all too likely.

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