Booker winner Eleanor Catton
One’s opinions have a funny way of aligning conveniently with one’s self-interest. Nevertheless, when I first heard that the Man Booker Prize would be opening up to American writers as of 2014, I was dubious. We Americans do not return the favour; Pulitzers and National Book Awards don’t go to Brits. Worse, could American winners dilute the brand, making the Booker less distinctly British?
On the other hand, the Booker hasn’t been British. Writers have qualified so long as they were citizens of the Commonwealth — which includes not only cultural outliers like Cameroon, but every English-speaking country except the United States. Exclusion of the Americans has therefore looked churlishly protectionist. Unlike many commentators, I don’t fear that the UK’s most prestigious literary prize will henceforth be reverse-colonised by manifestly superior, more audacious Great American Novelists. We do trump you 5:1 in sheer population, but many of my own favourite writers hail from the British Isles. There’s more than enough virtuosity on this side of the pond to secure the trophy for the home team with some frequency. Whew. Opinion lines mercifully back up with self-interest.
Most of all, though, I’m impressed that anyone cares — about the Booker, or about any literary award for that matter.
Make no mistake, these prizes are roundly benign. They top up writers’ advances, which have been shrinking of late, and can wildly increase the sales of a lucky few. Even shortlists can call the public’s attention to worthy works that had been neglected. Functioning at their best, awards issue a hitherto unknown talent into the limelight — which is why Hilary Mantel’s second Booker was something of a waste, while this year’s choice, Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries, was laudably interesting, giving a low-profile 28-year-old a career-changing boost. Gala award ceremonies perk up the calendars of schlubs whose profession involves sitting at home at a desk, and the rising suspense of longlist/shortlist/winner announcement varies the topography of lives otherwise dismally flat. Since we all know that juries are fallible, and the best man or woman doesn’t always go home with the cheque, the big-purse prize is a literary Lotto, and all you have to do to buy a ticket is to write a book.
However you may feel about Yanks and the Booker, the matter is hardly on a par with the outcome of Syrian civil war. But while the literary award may be perfectly anodyne, we can surely agree these prizes have grown too profuse. We have contests over who “presents new, important and challenging ideas”, comes up with the oddest title, or writes most appallingly about sex. Wikipedia lists 50 British literary prizes, and that doesn’t count a multitude of subcategories. The Americans are worse: 229 prizes, also with scads of subcategories. And both lists are incomplete. The British one doesn’t include, say, the Wellcome Trust award for books on medical subjects (£25K); the American one doesn’t include, say, the Grawemeyer Award — $200K for authors who “make the world a better place”.
The downside of this proliferating pomp and bestowing of accolades is that it plays to a self-importance that already infects the writing profession to an embarrassing and delusional degree. Writing is “hard work” primarily in the sense that it is oftentimes done badly — that most of its practitioners fail. In real-world terms, writing for a living is cushy —so cushy that the most pressing health and safety issue for full-time authors is a spreading backside. Laughably, readers have sometimes labelled me “brave”, while soldiers in Afghanistan might quite reasonably query the mettle of someone who exercises courage exclusively on paper. Storytelling is a modest calling. Yet with all the fanfare over book awards, not to mention the cultish thronging to hundreds of literary festivals, writers get fat heads. As a colleague remarked at the last festival I attended, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had festivals for people who actually do something?”
Wouldn’t it be great if we gave awards to people who actually do something? Plenty of people toil in occupations that don’t give prizes. They do a good job? No flowers, no speeches. So why not televise a Plumbing Booker — recognising the rare tradesman who puts in shower stalls that don’t leak? A Contractor Booker — open to any construction crew that shows up when they said they would, gets jobs done on time, and charges the original estimate? A Supermarket Booker — with a big round of applause for the clerk who smiles and makes daily-life-enhancing small talk? These are the unsung who really “make the world a better place”.
Meantime, it turns out that I’ve rather fancied not qualifying for the Booker. Every year someone else has walked off with the tribute, and I couldn’t take it personally. As of 2014? Damn. Yet another prize to lose.