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Expert comment: The Man Booker Prize 2016

0018 Dr Alice Bennett Tuesday 25 October 2016

Ahead of the announcement of the Man Booker Prize winner, Senior Lecturer in English Literature Dr Alice Bennett discusses the impact the award has on literary culture.

The announcement this evening of the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize will again bring to the fore debates around prize culture, the emergence of the contemporary canon, and the problems of aesthetic judgment in major prizes such as the Booker. The decision to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan earlier this month re-opened the conversation about the purpose of literary prizes. On the face of it, the Booker is a strange tradition, which brackets questions about personal taste and reading preferences and the huge variety of books that we call fiction in favour of naming just one book of the year. Like a judge at a county show trying to judge the merits of a neatly formed set of onions against an enormous, showy leek, the Booker judges will always face a challenge that springs from impossible comparisons and the variations of the annual crop. But what effects has the prize had on literary culture more widely?

When the Booker Prize began in 1968, it was intended to promote the sale of books that were acclaimed by critics. It’s possible, then, to think about literary prize culture as a way of pushing back against sales figures and bestseller lists as a marker of literary success. And, of course, a way to promote the commercial success of critically acclaimed books. On the other hand, literary prizes – and particularly the Booker – have been criticised for creating a narrowly defined genre of literary fiction that excludes writing that is weirder, more popular, more genre-focused, or more difficult and inaccessible.

There have been recent controversies in the Prize, such as the changes in 2013 that opened up the Prize to global, rather than just Commonwealth, entrants, and the debate in 2011 about the status of “readability” in the prize criteria. The former change to the prize worried some commentators, who were concerned that the prize might become dominated by US authors, while the controversy around “readability” was partly responsible for the establishment of the Goldsmith’s Prize, a prize awarded to writers for innovative fiction. The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize offers an explicit alternative to the Booker, this time circumventing the Prize’s expert panel by using readers’ suggestions and opinions to pick a winner. It’s clear that the Booker’s influence stretches beyond the decision about the annual winner and across the whole terrain of modern writing.

The results of the Booker Prize have some significant effects for what we think of as the contemporary canon – those books that are taught in universities under the heading of ‘contemporary fiction’ and that we use to define the literature of today. In the courses that we teach in the English Department, we teach fiction by many former Booker-Prize-winning authors and short-listees: Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Tom McCarthy. Teaching the history of literary prizes and the culture of prize-giving is also an important part of how we teach the literature of the present. Literary prizes have become such a significant force in contemporary publishing and in readers’ experience of the literary landscape that our studies of today’s writing will always be shaped by the biggest prizes and by reactions to them.

The bookies’ favourite for tonight is Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, and that novel is my pick too. Set in Spain and depicting a tense mother-daughter relationship, Hot Milk is an intense, sun-ripened tomato of a book. We’ll have to wait for the judges’ announcement at tonight’s literary agricultural show to see if it wins, or if the prize will go to a mammoth marrow or an earthy, vibrant beetroot instead.

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