This isn’t exactly topical, as the longlist was announced a couple of weeks ago, to the usual cooked-up “controversy” over additions and ommissions. My favourite (and this is a subject for another post at a later date) was the Guardian’s headline referring to the “Amis-free Booker longlist” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/27/booker-prize-longlist), which as far as I can see was just another attempt to stick the boot into my favourite living writer for never winning the thing (and for not even making the shortlist since 1992’s “Time’s Arrow”, one of his greatest books). A brief glance at the upmarket press around the time the longlist was announced demonstrates the enduring need for the broadsheets to find the Booker (or the Man Booker as it’s properly known) in some way contentious. Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, last year’s winner, was seen in some quarters as a retreat into the cozy, mainstream comforts of the conventional, as if historical fiction could never possibly be seen as challenging. This is a whole area of debate in itself, but behind the criticism is the idea that fiction should always deal with the problems, questions and “issues” of the present day; the contemporary world, the state of the nation, is the only fit subject for the novel. Where does this idea come from though? Is it the lingering hangover of the Victorian novel’s immense influence on what fiction is, what it can do, and what role “the writer” plays in the cultural (and social) world? Most of the major Victorian novelists, like Dickens and Eliot, tried to diagnose the disease at the heart of their society from a careful study of the symptoms, but imagine an entire Booker longlist composed of self-conscious “state of the nation” addresses. You can fill in the cast list of such productions yourself – these days you would have the banker, the young British Muslim, someone tangentially connected to the “media”, etc etc. There would, of course, have to be a badly-conceived terrorist subplot, and the whole thing would be obsolete before the ink was dry. Literary prizes should focus on one thing only – not the utility or “relevance” of the work, but its quality. Is it distinctive, well-written, and does it succeed on the terms it sets itself? John Banville’s “The Sea” was castigated for being too highbrow, but I think it’s one of the very few Booker-winning novels that I’ve read which I thought was a genuinely great work. That’s not elitism, but an appreciation of a master’s perfect control of his art.
Tangential to any supposed controversy over the Booker is the unspoken suspicion (in this country at least – I can’t think that the National Book Award or the Pulitzer gets anything like this kind of opprobrium in the USA) that literary prizes are inherently undignified. I’m sure there’s a great deal of horse-trading and bowing to fashion or commercial instincts in the way the winners are picked, but surely, in an age where fiction is increasingly beleaguered as an art form, something that raises its profile in a half-way serious manner is to be welcomed?
Feel free to comment on this – why does the Booker get such a bad press; should readers pay any attention to literary prizes; and should “the novel” comment only on “How We Live Now”?
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