‘Dumbed’ down prize?

One of the judges of this year’s con­tro­ver­sial Man Booker Prize for Fic­tion looks back at the se­lec­tion process that caused such a fuss.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By GABY WOOD the­sense

AT mid­day on Tues­day, five peo­ple met in cen­tral Lon­don. Each put in the cen­tre of a ta­ble a folded piece of pa­per, on which they had writ­ten the ti­tle of a book. And by around 2pm, there was cham­pagne.

You will know by now that the Man Booker judges chose as the win­ner of the 2011 prize Ju­lian Barnes’s The Sense Of An End­ing. Ex­actly what hap­pened in those two hours I am not, nat­u­rally, at lib­erty to dis­close. But I have no reser­va­tions about telling you that there was great joy in award­ing the prize to Barnes, and that it marks an ex­cel­lent mo­ment for Bri­tish fic­tion.

Along with my fel­low judges – Chris Mullin, former Labour MP and author of best­selling di­aries; Su­san Hill, le­gendary nov­el­ist and pub­lisher; Matthew d’Ancona, elo­quent Sun­day Tele­graph colum­nist and former editor of The Spec­ta­tor; and Stella Rim­ing­ton, nov­el­ist, mem­oirist and first fe­male di­rec­tor-gen­eral of Bri­tain’s in­tel­li­gence agency, MI5 – I’ve been sur­prised and rather ex­cited by the fuss caused by the Man Booker this year. I can’t re­mem­ber a time when peo­ple paid so much at­ten­tion.

The de­bate, which be­gan in early Septem­ber when our short­list omit­ting Alan Hollinghurst was an­nounced, cen­tred on the ques­tion of whether the Man Booker was “dumb­ing down”. The an­tag­o­nists fell, broadly, into the fol­low­ing cat­e­gories: pre­vi­ously short­listed nov­el­ists whose new books didn’t make it; agents of pre­vi­ously short­listed nov­el­ists whose new books didn’t make it; pub­lish­ers of pre­vi­ously short­listed nov­el­ists, etc, etc.

This was to be ex­pected. It is tra­di­tional for all prizes to be de­clared rub­bish and for all prize judges to be de­clared id­iots, un­til such time as the peo­ple who have been say­ing these things win.

But when our short­list be­came the fastest-sell­ing since records be­gan, all hell broke loose. Clearly, our choices must be too “com­mer­cial” and not “lit­er­ary” enough. Sig­nif­i­cantly, none of this dis­cus­sion was a re­sponse to the ac­tual books on the list.

Of the peo­ple who have scoffed, asked me if I’m em­bar­rassed, or who pro­nounced the prize to be on its last legs, not a sin­gle one has read The Sis­ters Broth­ers or HalfBlood Blues or Pi­geon English, all short­listed and all quite so­phis­ti­cated ex­er­cises in voice-throw­ing or genre-bend­ing. There is some­thing mag­nif­i­cent about this: that books which in an­other year would be classed as too odd or off­beat or even ex­per­i­men­tal have been de­rided as too com­mer­cial. Read­ers, we have slipped you some truly won­der­ful, sur­pris­ing stuff in the in­ad­ver­tent guise of the mass mar­ket. Of course, The Sense Of An End­ing in any case makes these ar­gu­ments in­stantly out of date, since its author is not a con­tro­ver­sial or “un­lit­er­ary” choice, and the book is a mas­ter­piece by any mea­sure. Most of the judges loved it as soon as we read it, all of us have read it sev­eral times, and no one doubts that it im­proves with ev­ery read­ing. ( The Sense Of An End­ing is re­viewed in Star2 on Sun­day.)

It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that, although the Man Booker can change a writer’s life, a prize is only a prize. It’s not an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it’s not a work of crit­i­cism, and it’s not the re­sult of com­mon-or-gar­den en­joy­ment, ei­ther. There are all sorts of other lives books can have.

Not long into the judg­ing year, a former jury mem­ber told me some­thing cu­ri­ous. When asked to look back on their ex­pe­ri­ence, most Man Booker judges I’ve spo­ken to have stuck to the choices they made orig­i­nally, whether or not they got their way.

But this one – him­self a nov­el­ist – said some­thing very sub­tle. With­out dis­own­ing the de­ci­sion he’d made, he sug­gested there ought to be a Man Booker 10 Years On Prize, be­cause the way a book cap­tures the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion does not nec­es­sar­ily come through in the year of its ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion. When he thought about which of the books pub­lished in the year he was a judge had most car­ried its weight across the decade that fol­lowed, the book he lighted on was one that had not even made the short­list.

So please don’t think the Man Booker judges in this or any year are try­ing to sug­gest no other books ex­ist – we should know, we’ve read 138 of them. I am ex­cep­tion­ally proud of the win­ner. I am very proud of our short­listed au­thors. But if I’m hon­est, the point in the year at which I felt most pride was when we chose our longlist – sim­ply be­cause it in­cludes more books.

Ev­ery year, when the Man Booker longlist is an­nounced, the world’s press (of which, of course, I am a mem­ber) looks for a story in it: Are there fewer women than usual? Are the books more de­press­ing than usual, or more thrilling?

But a re­ally good longlist is not tilted that way – it tells no story other than that this is an ex­cel­lent year for fic­tion.

I think ours did that, as well as high­light­ing (this was not our par­tic­u­lar in­ten­tion, but it’s what turned out to be best in our eyes) an un­usual num­ber of first-time nov­el­ists and an un­prece­dented per­cent­age of small pub­lish­ers. In that re­spect, I felt we used the power of the prize to its best pos­si­ble ad­van­tage.

I would urge you to read – and re-read – The Sense Of An End­ing. But I hope you read oth­ers to which we’ve been glad to draw your at­ten­tion, too. En­joy them, ar­gue about them, and make up your own minds. – © The Daily Tele­graph UK 2011 n Gaby Wood, one of the five judges on this year’s Man Booker Prize panel, heads the books sec­tion at TheTele­graph news­pa­per.

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