The Great Game; throughout Its 35-Year History, the Booker Prize Has Never Failed to Generate Controversy, Gossip and Scandal-And That Is Precisely Its Purpose. Jason Cowley on What Remains the Publishing Event of the Year
Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)
There was a particularly stupid editorial in the Daily Telegraph of 16 August. Commenting on the announcement of the 2003 Booker Prize long list, the paper complained that "Too often in the past, Booker judges chose wilfully obscure books to show quite how clever they really are." The assumption was that the Booker should be, as the Telegraph put it, "popular", as if the purpose of the prize was to create a culture of contentment, rather than to honour the most distinguished novel in any one particular publishing year. In truth, the Booker over its 35-year history has, if anything, been prejudiced against difficulty and obscurity. Accessibility, plot, the costume dramas of history, the upheavals of the decolonised world and the traditional virtues of craft and technique have, on the whole, been privileged over the wild, the experimental and the extreme.
To look back at past Booker winners is to encounter few, if any, truly remarkable novels about contemporary Britain. There have been remarkable winners all right, such as JM Coetzee's Disgrace (1999) and V S Naipaul's In a Free State (1971), but both books were set largely in southern Africa. If you are seeking something to compare with the profundity, urgency and ambition of, say, Michel Houellebecq's Atomised, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Don DeLillo's Underworld or Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, then the Booker cannot really help. Martin Amis and J G Ballard, who have both chronicled the contemporary with consistency and courage, have each been shortlisted only once, and then for their least characteristic novels--Amis for Time's Arrow (1991), which tells the story of the Holocaust backwards, and Ballard for Empire of the Sun (1984), about his childhood experience of internment under the Japanese in occupied Shanghai. Jonathan Coe's fine novel about Thatcherism and the excesses of the 1980s, What a Carve Up! (1994), was not even shortlisted, nor were V S Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Ian McEwan's The Child in Time (1987), Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1993) or Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000). These excellent novels about modern Britain all failed to make it on to the short list.
Yet one should not take the Booker too seriously, as the whole thing--the prize dinner, the judging process, the announcement of the long and short lists and the accompanying journalistic chatter and buzz--amounts to little more than a game, with its own arcane rules and rituals. The rules, like those of the British constitution, remain largely unwritten: change occurs, but never quickly, which means the prize still fails fully to embrace the anglophone world (the Americans remain stubbornly excluded). Like Granta magazine's Best of Young British promotion, the Booker has ever less to do with literature than with marketing and media management. Its purpose is simply to provoke discussion and disagreement, and through doing so, to generate sales of the kinds of novels that might otherwise be neglected or ignored altogether. The prize, which was last year raised from 20,000 [pounds sterling] to 50,000 [pounds sterling], ensures that the winning novel becomes a bestseller in Britain and much of the rest of the world too.
To attempt to dignify proceedings, as the mandarin commentator Simon Jenkins did when, as chairman of the judges in 2000, he prohibited all undisclosed media leaks, is to misunderstand the nature of an event that thrives on gossip, faux conspiracy and artificial scandal. Far better, as Lisa Jardine did last year, to take your fellow judges up on to the Millennium Wheel to check the veracity of a particular scene in a novel under discussion and then allow news of your stunt to leak out. Professor Jardine was a good chairman because she understood perfectly the nature of the event with which she was associated. This is an event, after all, which in pursuit of televised drama can sometimes end up inadvertently humiliating writers: individuals more used to spending long days alone at their desks are required for one night of radiant hope to dress up like dandies and attend a banquet. …