Week 4: The Booker and other prizes

It’s been going since 1969, changing its name to Man Booker in 2002.  Disappointingly – well, to me anyway – this was not to distinguish it from Woman Booker, Child Booker or perhaps Orang-Utang Booker, but simply because some chaps with a lot of money wanted to associate themselves with books, rather than leave people with the impression that they were simply interested in, you know, money.  Incidentally, have a look at their own explanation of who they are at  http://www.themanbookerprize.com/faqs .  I say this not in order to promote them – they’re going to get name-dropped a lot between now and prize day – but because I don’t understand a single word.  Is it me?  Or is it meaningless guff?  And if so, did someone get paid to make it up?  And when did people start treating words so badly and getting away with it (oh, I think we’ve just stumbled on a subject for another week, don’t you)?

Anyway, the short list for the Man Booker Prize 2013 has been announced.  I heard NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names) being interviewed on the radio and she sounds like a darling: one for the will-read list.  But my money’s on Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary because (a) he has been short-listed twice before and my (admittedly patchy) understanding of statistics means that he’s much more likely to win this time and (b) it is short. We must talk about the length of books one day: enough, here, to say that it is perfectly acceptable to quail at the sight of yet another 1,000-pager.  Had Wittgenstein turned his hand to reviewing novels (and I’m sure he’d have been a lulu), he might well have come up with the dictum, ‘if it can be said, it can be said briefly’. 

The Booker (let’s call it that: so pleasingly almost nominatively deterministic and it’s time we tried to put the phrase ‘liquid investment styles’ shudderingly behind us) has a good track record, on the whole.  In the last five years, the prize has gone to Hilary Mantel, twice – and, oh, if you haven’t yet starting reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, cancel all engagements, snuggle up and get cracking without further delay – Julian Barnes, always thoughtful, spare and illuminating, and Howard Jacobson (whose Oxford University sermon a couple of years ago was so good we had to sit on our hands not to applaud or throw flowers). 

There are other prizes, of course.  In fact there are shelves, cupboards, downstairs lavatories full of the things.  Some, like the Costa (once the Whitbread, which seemed, somehow, more stately) and the TS Eliot, matter: others don’t, except to the grateful recipients and their publishers, agents and mothers.  I have a soft spot for the Betty Trask prize for its clear-eyed determination to encourage and support new young writers, and for its dignified championing of the road less travelled – the last best-seller it backed was Zadie Smith in 2001.  The Nobel raises its dignified, remote head and shoulders above the rest by dint of its effortless appreciation of all languages, cultures and genres, a gift not given to us mere mortals.  I was glad when Seamus Heaney won it, and I have no way of knowing whether, were I Chinese and/or able to read Chinese, I would have been glad when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize last year, because I’m not and I can’t and, to be honest, I’d never heard of him until the announcement and I still don’t know what his writing feels like when you read it.

Should writing be a competition? Have we reduced publishing to a reality show with winners and losers? Well, yes, and on the other hand, no.  First, yes.  Getting any copies at all of your book sold now involves – especially if you are female­ – having air-brushed, made-over photos of you touted round the media and plastered on the back of your deathless prose.  When did this happen and why did we let it?  I haven’t the remotest idea what …. Ah.  I see a problem.  I was trying to think of an author whose appearance is unknown to me, so that I could say to you, ‘I haven’t the remotest idea what he or she looks like’: but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t because I have become so conditioned to the who-is-she-or-he culture that I Google writers. I didn’t know what Rosemary Sutcliff, or Roger Lancelyn-Green (another childhood favourite about whom we will talk one day) looked like when I read them, but now I do.  So, yes, we have become readers who demand to know the face, the story and the inside leg measurement of our authors.  One in the eye for  Roland Barthes: the author is not only not dead, he’s on daytime television.

But on the other hand, no.  Because, praise the Lord, we don’t just read the prize-winners, or the best-seller Top Ten, or the Good Reads lists of Ten Best Anything.  Do we?  You don’t, surely.  You’re much too eclectic, and self-confident, and cheerful a reader to stick to the road most travelled.  And unless you’re clever enough, or Chinese enough, to be able to read Mo Yan, there are prize-winners you don’t read, and are making no plans to read.  That’s OK too: this is as good a time as any to face the fact that by the time we die there will still be books in the world that we have not read. 

The best prizes, of course, are the ones you have won.  So here’s mine. Ladybird Sir Walter Raleigh

I was six.  It has a proper bookplate which tells the world how marvellous, clever and well-behaved I was then.  I had to do a proper curtsey when I went up onto the stage to be given it.  I can’t help wondering if life would be a better place if it still, just occasionally, held out the possibility of such glory.  Meanwhile, when I write The Novel, I’ll start practising my curtsey for the Man Booker judges.  Just in case.

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