Hubert Burda Media

How to make sense of the Booker Prize

As the 2017 Man Booker Prize ceremony approaches, we consider the importance of such literary awards.

In the interests of “full disclosure”, as journalists like to say these days, I am a former board member of the annual Man Asian Literary Prize (“the Asian Booker”). I wasn’t a judge – judging the novels was left to experts such as Cólm Toibín, Pankaj Mishra and Maya Jaggi, writers who knew what they were talking about. Nevertheless, regularly meeting fellow board members to discuss literature was enlightening and enjoyable … and led inexorably to the real, yearly highlight: a black-tie dinner below the sparkling chandeliers of The Peninsula Hong Kong, which ended, for some, at a random hour the following afternoon.

But ultimately, was that it? Was that all the prize amounted to? Not that I’m complaining about the champagne, fine food and intelligent conversation. Or having been in on that moment of exquisite drama, the big reveal, which always preceded the flinging open of the ballroom doors to television camera crews and reporters agitating for the first winner interview.

The same thing happens, on a grander scale, with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the big brother of the now-defunct Man Asian, presented every October at London’s historic Guildhall. The “big Man” is a shimmering occasion, a books Oscars, from which the victor departs £50,000 richer. But how much resonance does it have beyond the immediate back-slapping, back-biting, questioning of the judges’ integrity, taste and eyesight, briefly rocketing sales of the winning book and a possibly short-lived flaring of fame for the garlanded author?

With this year’s jamboree approaching, a cursory, unscientific survey conducted for Prestige Hong Kong revealed that awards-based first impressions don’t last, if they stick at all. Setting aside for a moment the Pulitzer, the Impac, the Costa and the rest, I wondered if anybody in my minuscule
sample set could recall last year’s Booker winner.

An ex-assistant editor of a literary quarterly admitted: “No idea. I didn’t read any of last year’s shortlist.” International businessman Stuart ventured: “Was it The Narrow Road to the Deep North? Or was that the year before?” (It was the year before that.) “That was one of the more readable recent winners,” he said.

Gerry, a university drama student carrying a copy of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, said: “Er, was it, er … no, don’t know.” And Lola, a sixth-form-college student, from deep in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, said: “No idea, sorry.”

The scope of the enquiry had to be widened beyond merely trying to remember who won and when. Perhaps the real value of literary awards could be illuminated by publishers, not least those vaulted into clover by fielding a winner – or even two.

Remarkably, last year’s Booker champion, Paul Beatty’s political satire The Sellout, as I’m sure you knew, and the 2015 victor, A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, were both published not by any international mega-house but by independent, homespun Oxford operation Oneworld Publications. Founded 30 years ago – and still run – by husband and wife team Novin Doostdar and Juliet Mabey, Oneworld didn’t begin publishing fiction until 2009. Following Beatty’s win it rushed out a 180,000-copy reprint of the novel – so thanks to the Booker, an enormous X now marks the Oneworld spot on publishers’ maps.

Charges of elitism always seem pasted to prestigious literary awards like insects to flypaper, although that seems a mite unfair when the 2017 Booker longlist of 13 has been whittled down from more than 150 hopefuls. Some entries are more equal than others, however and making the running with the bookies are big hitter Paul Auster’s 4321, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Astonishingly, for someone who looms so large in matters literary, this is Roy’s second novel only; but her status as darling of the lettered establishment is assured thanks to her first, The God of Small Things, the perennially popular 1997 Booker winner.

Perhaps the import of literary baubles and gongs can be ascertained by wheeling out some big guns and asking their opinions. Louis de Bernières, author of instant classic Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), was in a mischievous mood when consulted.

“Obviously I’d like to win [the Booker Prize], but I know I never will,” he said. “I also know that it is completely meaningless: ‘posh bingo’, as Julian Barnes put it. I receive prizes in the same spirit as one picks up a pound coin off the pavement. The only awards I really want are the Order of the Elephant, from Denmark, because that’s so delightfully strange, and the Légion d’Honneur, because that would be a small recompense for what Louis XIV did to
my Huguenot ancestors – persecuted them.”

De Bernières neatly rounded off his assessment with: “The most fun thing at a prize ceremony is witnessing Salman Rushdie’s outraged disgust when he realises he hasn’t won.”

Unscientifically ignoring those years in which the bookmakers’ favourites triumph, much contrary delight in awarding the Booker seems to be had by judges who confound expectations by honouring an outsider. Last year, in the home straight, Canada’s Madeleine Thien was the clear favourite at odds of 2/1 with Do Not Say We Have Nothing, so naturally the prize went to 5/1 shot The Sellout.

But the ever-gracious Thien, basking yet in the afterglow of her shortlisting and subsequent global stardom, and still on the personal-appearance circuit, told us, “Everyone was kind at the Booker, and the whole thing was a joy from beginning to end, and is even now,”

The most comprehensive endorsement of prizes comes courtesy of DBC Pierre, who took the 2003 Booker with Vernon God Little. “It’s good that there’s an award like the Booker, even though it’s illogical and impossible at a certain level to qualify art works over each other,” he said. “But I can say it feels hearteningly good-spirited in its remit: to narrow down what a cross-section of good minds considers the most exciting fiction.

“The thing for readers to remember, as they watch the gasps of dismay if not outrage at the winning choice, is that the real winner is the shortlist. All six books benefit in sales and attention simply by being shortlisted. Vernon sold roughly 16,000 copies between its release in January and its shortlisting in September. On the shortlist, sales approached 200,000.

“I’m incredibly grateful to have had a book singled out for the prize. Vernon broke all sorts of rules but its spirit was enough to carry the day – and that’s important for anyone setting out to write who is not a Cambridge graduate or literary master. So thumbs up for the Booker [and] the more people browsing books the better. Books: the entry drug for life.”

All that said, next month, when the hurly-burly’s done, when the judges have said who’s won, the literati will be livid or electrified, an unusually large number of books will be sold, and there will be a big party. And then, perhaps, books will be back on the backburner, where, even for some distinguished writers, they can often be found, Booker circus or not.

Contacted for our enquiry, India’s Jeet Thayil, liberally shortlisted for major literary laurels with his 2012 novel Narcopolis, said: “Can’t help, I’m afraid. Burned out talking literature.”