While some see it as a marketing strategy and a publicity stunt, for others it is one of the most prestigious literary awards. Since its inception, The Man Booker Prize has been on the receiving end of a lot of scrutinies. It has been called “its own genre”. The prize is highly commercialized, being sponsored by the Man Group.
Most times, the winner of a literary prize is unexpected and usually not popular among the general public. Surprisingly, this year a bestseller Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders won. It is Saunders’ first full-length novel about the souls adrift in the ‘bardo’, an intermediate state between birth and death in Tibetan Buddhism. It deals with his grief with references to the U.S. Civil War and is narrated by a set of characters who are also stuck in the Bardo. The 58-year-old became the second American writer to win The Man Booker Prize.
The Controversial History
The Man Booker Prize award came into existence in 1969. It was aimed at the “intelligent general audience” and often used for the edification of the public. While a lot of winners have long been forgotten, the Booker has certainly helped a lot of books like Iris Murdoch for her work The Sea, the Sea in 1978, Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children be established as brilliant pieces of literature. Initially, the prize was open just for authors from the UK but in 2014, it opened its gates to the US authors. This move was criticised as some believed that this would “Americanise the prize”.
This year’s winner Lincoln in the Bardo was well received upon its release in March 2017. Even before being nominated for the Booker, it was a New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller. “The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent and deeply moving narrative,” said Baroness Lola Young, a member of the judging panel.
This year’s shortlist had three American authors and a Pakistani author, Mohsin Hamid for his book Exit West. Past winners have included authors of Asian descent like Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie. Last year’s winner The Sellout was written by Paul Beatty, a person of colour. However, there still persists a neo-colonial cultural dominance of the UK and the US. A trend of winners being novels with liberal-humanist worldview from home countries can be clearly seen.
A research conducted by The Royal Society of Literature brings to light how little readers remember the works of authors of colour. Out of the 400 books mentioned by the 2000 people surveyed in Britain, only 7% belonged to people of colour.
What do the former judges say?
Jason Cowley, a member of the judging panel in 1997 said, “Each of the judges has his or her prejudices”. He added, “Some judges, especially those inside literary London, have a network of contacts and friendships which may lead them to act in ways that they don’t quite understand. Certain judges tend to protect certain writers and they are skilful about manipulating positions. Nothing is ever made explicit; it’s all about subtexts.”
John Saunders, a British academician, author, and a former judge said, “There is a well-established London literary community”. He added, “Rushdie doesn’t get shortlisted now because he has attacked that community. That is not a good game plan if you want to win the Booker…The real scandal is that Amis has never won the prize. In fact, he has only been shortlisted once and that was for Time’s Arrow, which was not one of his strongest books. That really is suspicious. He pissed people off with Dead Babies and that gets lodged in the culture. There is also the feeling that he has always looked towards America.”
Another former judge Alex Clark, in an article in The Guardian, addresses the “readability” issue. The winners are usually books which are considered “readable”, implying difficult reads or “unreadable” books like Ulysses or even the works of Jane Austen, had they been written now, would have never made the cut. She says that the problem “is not with the books; the problem is that this year’s hoo-ha suggests that the Booker is happy to be seen as a marketing strategy than as an exercise – however flawed – in choosing and celebrating a literary and artistic achievement.”
Influence of the Booker on readers
It is well-established fact that a Booker prize helps boost the sales of a book. Many readers choose a book based on the prizes it was nominated for or if it has won a Booker. It’s sad but prizes rather the quality of writing get people’s attention. Thus, the continued neo-colonial cultural dominance only allows a narrow and limited perspective to the readers. The Booker Prize was once a means for the unheard and unnoticed to spread their view through their writings. Through this, a lot of unknown writers found platform and access to a wider audience. A lot of people belonging to countries like Iceland have now read the works of Aravind Adiga or Arundhati Roy.
Apart from ethnicity, a lot of other factors also come into play. Being well established, having money, part of literary circles, etc, all has its effects on winning or being nominated for the Booker. The selection process requires a publisher to “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. (The Guardian). Many up and coming writers lack this sort of money.
In the end, the prize winner is chosen by a group of people who have their literary preferences and are susceptible to being influenced. It is impossible to measure or quantify a piece of literature. It is not wise to do away with prizes. However, what needs to be paid special attention to is the criteria and the perspective used to judge a book. The readers too should learn to judge for themselves. To solely depend on prizes to read a book or consider books as something they have ‘got’ to read is not wise.