I’ve been following with interest – and some bemusement – the kerfuffle surrounding the shortlist (and the longlist before it) of this year’s Man Booker Prize. There was a fair amount of commentary (not necessarily by people who had read the books) to the effect that the judges had somehow failed in their task to select the titles they considered the best from the pool of submissions (in some quarters, opinion seemed to be that the judges had failed in their task to shortlist The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst). These arguments struck me as unconvincing because they sought to dismiss the shortlist (or longlist) out of hand, rather than engage with the books selected.
One of the key points of contention has concerned comments made by the judges on the ‘readability’ of their choices; this issue surfaced again today in the announcement of the Literature Prize, a new award being positioned as an alternative to the Booker. In the words of the Prize’s board, as reported by The Bookseller:
[The Literature Prize] will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of…expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition…For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement…
I think there’s something of a false opposition being made, there, between the concepts of ‘readability’ and ‘artistic achievement’ (isn’t a novel of any stripe a failure if it doesn’t make its readers want to turn the page?); but, more than this, the Literature Prize feels – from its name downwards – like a kneejerk reaction to this year’s Booker shortlist. One shortlist – one jury’s definition of ‘best’ – with which you disagree does not make the entire enterprise flawed.
I wish the Literature Prize well, and hope it brings to light some excellent and interesting books; but I also hope it can come to a more positive and robust sense of what it wants to achieve.