The Honour and the Provocation

by Simon Williamson

18 October 2005

What does it mean to win a major book prize? Apart from a giant load of cash? With the recent Booker announcement in mind, Simon Williamson ponders the benefits of pitting art against art.

This month, in something of an upset, The Sea, a novel by Irish author John Banville, took out the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Banville will be £50,000 richer, and his novel The Sea will be strategically positioned in book displays right across the (non-American) English-speaking world. But what does it mean? Anything? Can such a prize ever be more than a canny marketing ploy?

Some, many writers included, are sceptical about the worth of prizes. John Barth, the 1973 National Book Award winner once said, “A worthwhile literary prize, in my estimation, is one that on occasion will be awarded to a writer despite the fact that he or she deserves it”. V.S. Naipaul, a winner of the Booker in 1971 with In A Free State, said: “The Booker is murder. Absolutely nothing would be lost if it withered away and died.” And Australian critic Stephanie Bunbury articulated the thoughts of many when she wrote that “The idea that books can be measured against each other is fundamentally silly. The only way in which it is not silly is as a marketing tool.”

Referenced book:
The Sea
by John Banville

November 2005, 208 pages, $23.00

It’s not hard to empathise with this view. After all, there’s something a bit tawdry in turning something as complex and ineffable as literature into a competition, particularly when it’s so entangled with commerce and marketing. (Bookmakers even offer odds on the listed novels.) Many resist the idea that literature can be ranked. Glossy magazines may incessantly compile lists of the Top 100 this or the Top 50 that, but why should literature collaborate with this impulse, which invariably reduces, falsifies, and domesticates one of our most enduring and significant art forms: the novel.

For many readers, the best literature is too rich for easy explication, and its effects too subjective for simple comparisons. And if that’s the case, how can one great novel be measured against the next? Therefore, the argument goes, to nominate a long list, a short list, and a winner, as the Booker does, is an affront to good taste, for it pretends to measure the immeasurable.

Yet aren’t awards like the Booker simply formalising what readers do anyway? Most avid readers, if asked, could nominate the best book they’d read during the preceding year. All readers have favourites, and the fact that they do means that they measure books against one another. Indeed, implicit in the existence of a website such as PopMatters is the idea that books—and CDs and films—can be compared to each other. And if that’s the case, why not appoint a panel of respected writers, academics, critics and editors each year to select what they think is the best novel among those submitted?

True, there’s no objective measure of a book’s quality—literature isn’t a race where achievement can be measured by a stopwatch. If it were, there’d be no incentive for awards like the Booker because it’s the very difficulty of measuring books against each other that makes doing so such a fascinating exercise. Part of a literary award’s appeal is the debate that surrounds it. After all, singling out one book among many is both an honour and a provocation.

This year, for instance, Ian Holding’s debut novel Unfeeling was widely regarded as unlucky to miss out on the Booker shortlist, as was The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, as wereSaturday and Shalimar the Clown, novels by former winners Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. Meanwhile, Julian Barnes did make the shortlist—for the third time, in fact—but has again walked away empty handed, despite his novel, Arthur and George, being widely touted as the likely winner.

But awards thrive on this type of controversy. The publicity and interest they generate count in their favour. Without the Booker to pique public interest, how many people would have heard of Unfeeling or The People’s Act of Love? Being controversially omitted from the Booker shortlist is probably worth just as many book sales to Meek and Holding as making the shortlist. Either way, it’s a great deal more publicity than novels would have enjoyed without the Booker. The same could be said for Arthur and George and the other shortlisted novels: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro; A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry; On Beauty, by Zadie Smith; and The Accidental, by Ali Smith. They may be prize-less, but they have been talked about, argued over, and purchased at an otherwise improbable rate. And for many, this is the bottom line when it comes to awards. Despite all their fallibilities, how can anything that prompts this much interest and engenders this many book sales be bad?

Anyway, art and commerce have always intermingled, and art has always been measured against other art. The act of measuring—whether it’s done by a panel of judges or by you in your favourite armchair—is healthy. It illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of novels, and illuminates also the process by which such judgements are made. The fact that these judgements are disputed is not a reason to stop making them.

In some respects, awards furores are like the endless disputes on the Western canon—on what should be admitted and what excluded, on whether there’s a place for such a canon at all. Wherever the line between canonical and non-canonical is drawn, fierce engagements will be fought. Likewise, whichever novel wins the Booker, there will be controversy. Such tectonic collisions of opinion should be embraced, not regretted. They hone and fortify our opinions. They are hotspots, but also the spots where creation is laid bare: the creation of our reading selves.

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