WERE you able to contain your excitement when you heard the news that Hilary Mantel, AS Byatt (left) and Sarah Waters were joined on the Man Booker shortlist by JM Coetzee, Adam Foulds and Simon Mawer?
Were you more, or less thrilled, than when you found out that they were selected for the longlist, including Colm Tobin and first-time novelist James Lever? Will you be sitting on the edge of your seat until you hear, in October, who the winner of this prestigious prize is?
For those of you not paying attention, the Man Booker Prize is Britain’s crème de la crème literary award for the best novel in English by a British or Commonwealth writer. It is not to be confused with the Roald Dahl memorial prize, or the Costa – which was named after the coffee chain sponsor, previously known as the Whitbread, or the Orange. Nor – for the genre defenders – should it be confused with the RBA, awarded for crime writing and won by Scottish author Philip Kerr just last week.
And let’s not forget the Nobel Prize for Literature, the James Tait Black Memorial and the Samuel Johnson, nor leave out the Not the Booker prize, where readers nominate their favourite. This year most novels on Not the Booker Prize longlist are also on the Booker longlist, but not the Man Booker International. Aren’t you tired of reading yet?
Soon no author will be without an accolade as we drown in a sea of cultural crowns. I don’t want to be curmudgeonly about trophies: culture and its recognition is important. I understand the lure of lists, of the top ten, or 20, of trumpeting what is tip-top. Pointing out what is first-class helps us readers decide what to go for, and the authors receive well-deserved dosh (£50,000 for the Booker).
Nor do I object to these decorations on the grounds that they are undeserved; sometimes they are. I mind because it’s gone too far. The medals are proliferating and it’s increasingly difficult to discern what is any good.
A lack of aesthetic accountability runs through these literary laurels. To have so many glittering awards has rendered them meaningless, for they cannot all be gold. The plethora of honours means that we cannot decide which one is better than all the rest.
Sometimes good literature just isn’t news, nor should it be. Making it so detracts attention from what is of value; how to make such verdicts and on what basis. What is lost, with the promiscuous prize giving, and the copious news reports and columns, however, is a discussion about the book. There is far more writing, commenting and talking about the award and the prize winner than the work itself.
Most of the blather and blether in the Press is about the sponsors, the bookies’ takings, publishers’ soirees and glamorous dinners, and of the predicable spats between the numerous judges who fight for newspaper coverage about themselves. The more we read and hear about the chosen tomes, the less we hear about the actual writing – the outstanding phrasing, character development, social commentary, perfect poetry or prose and the finest fiction.
The pile-up of prizes signals nothing of distinction. Increasingly, more means less as we lose the importance of quality control.
For a change let’s talk of writing, standards of script, and the content of the books – to show that it is quality that counts. The question should be: what is good and why? Not: what award is it this week?
It’s time to close the book on literary prizes.