The literary community is beset with bourgeois handwringing (surprise, surprise). With the Booker Prize announcement looming, the discourse cogs are whirring: should we have prizes at all? How foolhardy to think we can label one book The Best. In April the Bookseller ran a screed against the tyranny of the “highbrow”: “Stop this harmful hierarchy,” it beseeched, concluding that it is “damaging” and “marginalising” to rank fiction by its quality, or suggest “that some writing is simply ‘better’”.
The argument against this kind of contest is as simple as it is transparent: that tastes change, but the Booker shortlist is frozen in time; sorting books via the rubric of “good, better, best” is an absurdly subjective exercise; that it is elitist to categorise fiction by merit (really?); that it is not in the spirit of bonhomie novelist solidarity (as if such a disposition ever existed in the first place).
These are hardly compelling objections to artistic competition. Healthy rivalry is good for the authors and even better for readers: the Booker forces a conversation about literary merit. In a culture mired by the homogeneous sludge of streaming, short-form video and Marvel franchises, the occasional intellectual work is a life-raft. Authors may be unhappy to be subject to this “harmful hierarchy” but the ecosystem depends on it; their egos will survive.
But the Booker is lost. Sympathy, first, to the publishing industry: each year freshly enraged at the scattergun approach to divining a shortlist and picking a winner. Julian Barnes, who won the prize with his novel The Sense of an Ending in 2011, once likened the process to “posh bingo”. There was uproar among London’s literary tastemakers in 2013 when it was announced that the prize would be opened up to American entrants (anyone but the Yanks!). In 2019 the judging panel suffered a catastrophic failure of purpose: splitting the award between two authors – Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood.
The prize has faced repeated existential crises: should it celebrate innovation, even when that results in an inaccessible and obscure shortlist, or succumb to the populism of the so-called readability factor? In 2011 Chris Mullin, one of the judges, declared his belief that books should “zip along”. Such base, lowbrow proclivities were derided – not least by former judges (“self-congratulatory philistinism”, said the 2008 judge Alex Clark). The Booker Prize is no longer an institution at ease with itself.
[See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing?]
And who can blame it. Our culture is hopelessly bad at assessing the value of a work in its time. Sylvia Plath did not win the Pulitzer until 19 years after her death. The pioneering impressionist artist Claude Monet was told his paintings were blobby, formless. In 2017 Lorde’s Melodrama – since deemed one of the greatest pop records of the 21st century – lost out on Album of the Year at the Grammys to Bruno Mars.
Awards are conservative: they reflect extant trends and celebrate good examples of the status quo. Take Ireland’s dominance of the Booker: this year, four out of 13 authors on the longlist were Irish. All are accomplished writers, but this is just statistically improbable. The Booker celebrates the Irish novelist because this is the trend. The artistic milieu of Paris denigrated Monet because he bucked it.
The late Martin Amis once lamented that awards are only given to boring books. Of course they are! The judges of the Booker may aspire to objectivity – fairmindedness, unimpeded by external influence, not subject to the zeitgeist – but any decision made by committee is going to cleave to the consensus view. This is the scourge of the panel, the flaw at the heart of the jury. When the process demands they seek common ground from strong but incompatible views, the brilliant but challenging are excluded – Adam Mars-Jones’s Box Hill (2020) and its sexually explicit opening passage springs to mind. The winners are often the pick that no one would veto, that triggers no serious objection, a safe third way. It is a shame, since no one has ever recalled a beloved work of art for the reason that it did not provoke strong feelings in them.
The Booker, like any cultural machine, is vulnerable to the throes of politics. Emily Wilson, who judged the prize in 2020, later told the Guardian, “It’s actually OK, if multiple books are good, to think we might want to longlist more by young people and more by people of colour.” A worthy mission, perhaps, and certainly a well-intentioned one. But youth and ethnicity are hardly relevant criteria for selecting the best work of fiction published in a year. Total puritanism may be impossible, but a good panel should attempt at least to limit their judgement to aesthetic merit.
We ought to stay alert to the final possibility: perhaps the Booker hasn’t picked an exciting winner in years because there hasn’t been one. The literary world is shrinking, horizons are narrowing, sales of literary fiction plummeting. It is hard to recall the last year there was a glut of novels everyone spoke about: the Sally Rooney phenomenon is the exception that proves this rule. And now books about Irish people with dysfunctional relationships, pallid tales of sad PhD students, and middlebrow crime thrillers have taken over.
The place of the Booker Prize in the national conversation is waning but we cannot blame this solely on the biases of the judging panel, the difficulty inherent to assessing the value of a work at its inception, nor even the Americans at the gate. The lost art of curating good shortlists is one thing. The twilight of English literary fiction is far more troubling.
[See also: Books of the year 2023]
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style