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  • James Ward

The Man Booker Prize: where did it all go wrong?

Who won the Man Booker prize last year? Or the year before?

Difficult to say. At least, without Google. Difficult to say anything much about the Booker prize any more. Somehow, it’s dug itself into a hole of obscurity.

When I was young, it was actually quite exciting. There were a handful of writers – Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble, Salman Rushdie, AS Byatt, Iris Murdoch – who always seemed to be in the running (names made famous partly by association with the award), and the whole thing was televised, and there were always public debates about who had and hadn’t been left out, and what the judges’ ‘agenda’ was, etc.

That’s mainly gone now. Partly because the prize shot itself in the foot by trying to go too wide. Previously, it was a Britain and Commonwealth award; in 2013, it expanded to take in … well, everywhere. All the applicant had to do was write in English.

Before we go on, there is an issue there, because arguably, one important aspect of literature is its national character. Thus we have The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and The Cambridge History of the English Short Story, and so on. As a reader, I want fiction that speaks to me about the narrow community of which I’m a part, and which helps me interpret it. That’s not arbitrary and it’s certainly not xenophobic. You take me too wide, I begin to lose interest. How wide is too wide? Well, it depends who I am. But the Booker prize may well have gone there.

There are other problems. As I have written elsewhere, the prize was given a priceless opportunity to reinvigorate itself a few years ago when Stella Rimington was in the chair and suggested that ‘readability’ and the capacity to ‘zip along’ are crucial criteria for judging books.

Which made some literary critics very angry indeed.

Yet in Rimington’s defence, most of the best novels of recent years ‘zip along’. Look on the back cover of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013), and the first thing that catches your eye is a puff from The Independent on Sunday: “A gripping page-turner”; or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001): “Compellingly readable” (The Daily Mail); or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2011) “utterly gripping” (The Observer), or Elena Ferrante’s entire series of Neapolitan novels. All are utterly readable. And they all ‘zip along’.

In other words, they have pace.

Rimington’s stance could have led to a meaningful debate. Yes, maybe she went too far, I don’t know, but that’s often how productive discussions begin.

Instead, it led to a hyper-conservative lockdown. As Anita Singh subsequently put it, commenting on the following year’s shortlist in The Telegraph, “When the 2011 Man Booker Prize judges said they were looking for ‘readable’ novels, the literary establishment was aghast. Perhaps that is why this year’s judges have chosen a shortlist that stays well clear of the mainstream. The six books include Will Self’s Umbrella, 400 chapter-free pages about a woman incarcerated in a mental hospital, and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, an Indian performance poet whose debut novel is set in Mumbai’s opium dens and based on his own experience as an addict.” (‘Booker Prize shortlist turns its back on “readability”’, 12 Sept 2012).

Courageous? Or back to business as usual?

At the time, one of Rimington’s most vociferous critics was the former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who said her comments opened up “a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true”.

Well, in Rimington’s defence, they may not be mutually exclusive but are far from the same. Let’s ask ourselves for a moment: what sort of ‘quality’ novels don’t have pace? Which ones aren’t particularly readable? What kind of ‘literary fiction’ (that bloody awful term) is utter rubbish?

One possible answer (amongst many): postmodernist novels, pseudo-profound experimental works that ‘test the boundaries of language’ as if there is still important ground to be broken there. The sort of novels, in other words, that English writers seem to excel at.

Don’t get me wrong, Modernism was crucial in its day. The Modernists invented a whole new palette of writing tools. And they did it all in one fell swoop. I can imagine being a writer in the 1920s, reading Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway, and thinking, “Wow, I never believed it was possible to do this!” and feeling genuinely liberated as a result. Every contemporary writer, whether he or she knows it or not, has been positively influenced by what Joyce and Woolf did.

But we don’t need people to keep doing it, which is really (for all its pretensions) all Postmodernism is: a re-hash of Modernism, but with a pinch more cynicism. Most countries had got over Postmodernism by the late 1980s. Not Britain. Here, it continues to command a place at the top table.

Part of the problem is that Postmodernism is too often seen as a form of pure intellectualism. And in Britain, intellectualism and social class have always been inextricable.

The way social class works in Britain, it is not enough to do well; someone else must do less well (note: not fail. That would occasion pity and guilt). Correlatively, it is not enough to be intelligent; someone else has to be less intelligent. Contemporary Modernist/ Postmodern novels help facilitate this. Ironically, their middle-class credentials are often most glaringly betrayed by a neurotic over-eagerness to subvert middle-class ideals (or what they perceive as such): respectability, reason, common sense, readability, pace.

Meanwhile, this year’s Man Booker longlist was announced on 27 July.

Three questions:

Do you know who’s on there?

Do you care?

On a scale of 1-10, how conducive do you think the prize now is to the production of better fiction in this country, or abroad?

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