The Awarding of the Third Russian Booker Prize

By Tait, Arch | The Modern Language Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

The Awarding of the Third Russian Booker Prize


Tait, Arch, The Modern Language Review


At a reception in the Library of Foreign Literature in April 1994 to announce the list of works nominated for the Booker Russian Novel prize, the director of the British Council, Mark Evans, made a point of reminding the assembled guests that the prize was awarded for the best novel of the year, and not to an author for a lifetime's achievement (a reference, one rather bilious journalist surmised, to the awarding of the prize the previous December to Vladimir Makanin). In his reply Lev Anninskii, Chairman of the 1994 jury, promised to do his duty without fear or favour: 'It is a peculiarity of the Booker Russian Novel Prize that it is awarded, not for a lifetime's achievement, not in recognition of the moral excellence of a writer, but purely on the literary merits of a particular novel in a particular year', (2) Anninskii reminded his audience at the award ceremony in Moscow on 19 December 1994, before going on to announce that the judges were unanimous in awarding the prize to the revered Bulat Okudzhava for his little-discussed novel Uprazdnennyi teatr ('The Show is Over'). (3)

The Russian Booker prize was first awarded in December 1992, and was to be continued, initially for five years, in order 'to reward contemporary Russian authors, to promote wider knowledge of modern Russian fiction, to encourage translations and to increase sales of books'. (4) To date the winning novels of 1992 and 1993 have indeed been translated, and excerpts from the shortlists since 1994 have been published in the journal Glas New Russian Writing. (5) In the first three years of the prize the winner received ten thousand pounds. (6) At its inception in 1991/92 the publishing situation in Russia was so serious that submissions did not have even to have been published: manuscripts were accepted. The already dismal 41,234 titles marketed in 1990 had further dwindled to 28,160 in 1992 (fewer than had been published in the Russian Empire in 1913, to use a notorious parameter). (7) It was feared that many famous literary journals, including Novyi mir, might be forced to close down. The Moscow-based Task Force against Piracy commented in an undated press release that 'after the state surrendered its watchdog function over the publishing industry, professional incompetence--bordering at times on total ignorance--and a no-holds-barred race for profit contaminated the market with literature of low or no artistic value, hack translations of world-acclaimed bestsellers, and rampant book piracy'.

The euphoria of 1986-89, as oppressive Soviet controls were dismantled, unexpected new and previously banned literature made its appearance, and private publishing houses reappeared for the first time since their destruction in 1929-30, was followed by growing dismay. Russian domestic prices rocketed by around 3,000 per cent in the eighteen months from early 1992 to mid-1993. Political and economic instability made rational management of problems arising from the transition to a market economy virtually impossible. (8)

If in the years of perestroika there was a tremendous appetite for journalism, memoirs, archival publications, diaries, and similar historical source material, the early 1990s saw a switch towards the reading of low-brow fiction, a change considered to be due at least in part to 'the social apathy of the population' (Dan'shina and Dymov, p. 9). Despite this, there was a dramatic reduction in the output of fiction, largely attributable to cash-flow problems in the state publishing houses, compounded by rising production costs, which outstripped even general inflation (p. 7). Where publishers failed to publish books announced for 1991-92, their prices when they reannounced them for the following year had multiplied by a factor of between twenty and fifty (Kuznetsov and Dymov, p. 8).

It comes as no surprise that with the disappearance of prescriptive Soviet publishing policies demand was most buoyant, as in other countries, for low-brow fiction. …

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