Under my byline

Readers’ shortlist

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 18 May 2008

The Best of the Booker prize is here again, this time for its 40th anniversary, and the judge will be you

There’s a sucker born every minute,” the legendary 19th-century showman P T Barnum is supposed to have said (only he didn’t; it was a rival). This sage insight, as we have learnt, animates nearly all modern retail businesses — publishing no less than any other — and shapes how they approach their own class of suckers, sorry, consumers.

Take readers: ordinarily a quiet and harmless demographic, they are being wooed as never before by a publishing industry with more money to spend (and also more demands on its purse) than ever before.

Reading used to be a solitary activity, passed on, if at all, from mentor to mentee or friend to friend in an informal relationship that’s almost as old as civilisation: “Read this and tell me what you think.” These days, it’s difficult to have that kind of intimate exchange. Its essential currency — time — is in short supply, and so is the adventuresome curiosity about the world and its inhabitants that makes both good reader and good book.

Nor is reading now a solitary activity, because it is so easy to establish communities around a specific shared interest, such as mailing lists and reading groups, and because the media are good at creating artificial consensus, in literature as in political life.

Novels are, by common consent, literature in the way that academic or management writing is not. In novels we still recognise some of the art and craftsmanship that until quite recently used to be part of so many working lives. We also honour them, by honouring the great novelists — and, today, we do so by giving them prizes, money and celebrity.

The Booker (now Man Booker) Prize is possibly the second best-known literary prize on the planet. It is designed to recognise the best novel in English from the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. This year the annual prize completes 40 years of existence and, to celebrate, it is throwing a party. The focus of the festivities is The Best of the Booker, a competition among all the 41 Booker winners to date for the best of the lot, to be announced on July 10.

They’ve done this before, in 1993 on their 25th anniversary, when Salman Rushdie’s 1981 winner Midnight’s Children was crowned Best of the Booker. The same book is favoured to win this time too. The Man Booker website even tells us what odds the bookmakers are offering: from 6-4 in favour of Rushdie to 10-1 for the last, J G Farrell’s 1973 winner The Siege of Krishnapur.

The other four books in the running this time are Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995 winner), Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), J M Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974). They were chosen by a panel of three judges — critic and award-winning biographer Victoria Glendinning, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup and English professor John Mullan.

Out of this shortlist of six, released on May 12, the Best of the Booker will be chosen — not by the judges, but by you. The Man Booker people want you to visit their website and vote for your favourite, or to SMS them your choice.

Anyone in the world can cast one vote, they say, but appear to betray their parochial outlook — or simply acknowledge the bulk of their customers — by adding brashly: “Never mind the local elections [in the UK]; the only vote that counts this summer is for The Best of the Booker.” Customers or suckers?

Barker’s The Ghost Road is the last of her Regeneration trilogy, set during the First World War. Her characters include British officers at Craiglockhart in Scotland to recover from “shell shock” and the psychiatrist who treated them, William Rivers. Some are historical, such as Rivers, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, but the narrator and protagonist Billy Prior, who in The Ghost Road returns to and dies at the front, is not.

Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is about a 19th-century missionary, Oscar, sent to Australia, who meets his future wife Lucinda on the boat. It’s a magnetic but uneasy union in which one is an obsessive gambler, the other a compulsive one; together they make a wager that sends Oscar into the bush porting a ready-to-assemble glass-and-iron church, where glass has never been seen…

In Coetzee’s Disgrace, a middle-aged professor in South Africa has sex with a student — it is almost rape — and is forced out of his job. He goes to his daughter’s farm, and there finds that she has had her own experience with sexual humiliation. Two cultural ways of dealing with such things collide.

Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur describes the day-to-day life of the British residents of a small town under siege during the 1857 revolt. At first arrogant and overconfident, the defenders slowly start to break. Farrell’s graphic telling is sharpened by his wit — jokes fly “as thick and fast as the musket balls”, says one reviewer.

Gordimer’s The Conservationist is also set in South Africa. Her protagonist is a rich white man who thinks he’s got where he has by hard work and not the advantage of birth. She shows how his wealth is built on others’ toil, and how little he belongs in his own land.

Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children follows the life of Saleem Sinai, born at midnight as India gained its independence and thus bestowed with certain magical powers, as it parallels that of modern India.

It’s the kind of selection that only a panel of judges would be able to make — because they have read all the 41 contenders. If the organisers had left it to the voting public, the shortlist would have included Yann Martel and Arundhati Roy, as well as Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro and A S Byatt.

We know this because Abebooks.com is running a concurrent contest open to Internet voting, with all the Booker winners in the running, and posting the results. Nothing wrong with this alternate list — but the names on it are all well known and bestselling.

The official shortlist does remind us of books and authors that have fallen below the bookstore radar, which may even be hard to find. How many online voters will have read all six contenders and thus be making a meaningful choice?

John Banville, winner in 2005, once told an interviewer bluntly that “the Booker Prize and literary prizes in general are for middle-ground, middlebrow work… The Booker Prize is a prize to keep people interested in fiction, in buying fiction. If they gave it to my kind of book every year, it would rapidly die.”

William Wordsworth famously wrote that “Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.” How will this happen now that literary taste is arbited by major prizes that promise to make both author and publisher rich and famous, and especially now that the general public can vote to create its own heroes?

In 1928 Ezra Pound, again famously, wrote that “The whole system of prize-giving… belongs to an uncritical epoch; it is the act of people who, having learned the alphabet, refuse to learn how to spell.”

In a larger market than ever before, who knows how many great and original writers we are failing to recognise.

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