‘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.
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.