There are at least two reasons why almost every anglophone novelist feels compelled to get as near the Booker prize as they can. The first is because it looms over them and follows them around in the way Guy de Maupassant said the Eiffel Tower follows you everywhere when you’re in Paris. “To escape the Eiffel Tower,” Maupassant suggested, “you have to go inside it.” Similarly, the main reason for a novelist wanting to win the Booker prize is to no longer be under any obligation to win it, and to be able to get on with their job: writing, and thinking about writing.
Today, there’s little intellectual or material investment in writers: prizes and shortlists are meant to sell books
The other reason is that the Booker prize is most literary publishers’ primary marketing tool. There are relatively few Diana Athills (Athill was VS Naipaul’s editor) and Charles Monteiths (Monteith was William Golding’s) today: publishers who identify, and are loyal to, novelists in the long term because of commitment to literary merit. Publishing houses were once homes to writers; the former gave the latter the necessary leeway to create a body of work. Today there’s little intellectual or material investment in writers: literary prizes and shortlists are meant to sell books, and, although there’s a plethora of them, the Man Booker is the only one that has a real commercial impact.
The idea that a “book of the year” can be assessed annually by a bunch of people – judges who have to read almost a book a day – is absurd, as is the idea that this is any way of honouring a writer. A writer will be judged over time, by their oeuvre, and by readers and other writers who have continued to find new meaning in their writing. The Booker prize is disingenuous not only for excluding certain forms of fiction (short stories and novellas are out of the reckoning), but for not actually considering all the novels published that year, as it asks publishers to nominate a certain number of novels only. What it creates is not so much a form of attention but a midnight ball. The first marketing instrument is the longlist (this year’s was announced last month): 13 novels arrayed like Cinderellas waiting to catch the prince’s eye. (Those not on the longlist find they’ve suddenly turned into maidservants.)
When the shortlist is announced, the enchantment lifts from those among the 13 not on it: they become figments of the imagination. Then the announcement of the winner renders invisible, as if by a wave of the wand, the other shortlisted writers. The princess and the prince are united as if the outcome was always inevitable: at least such is, largely, the obedient response of the press. And the magic dust of the free market gives to the episode the fairytale-like inevitability Karl Popper said history-writing possesses: once history happens in a certain way, it’s unimaginable that any other outcome was possible.
What is astonishing is the acquiescence with which the value system I’ve just described is met with by most writers. Most will feel that it doesn’t speak to why they’re writers at all, but few will discuss this openly. Acceptance is one of the most dismaying political consequences of capitalism. It informs the literary too, and the way publishers and writers “go along” with things. The Booker now has a stranglehold on how people think of, read, and value books in Britain. It has no serious critics. Those who berate its decisions about individual awardees (James Kelman’s prize back in 1994 prompted one judge to say it was “frankly, crap”) ritually add to its allure. After all, the attractiveness of the free market has to do with its perverse system of rewards – unlike socialism, which said everyone should be moderately well off, the free market proposes that anyone can be rich.
The Booker’s randomness celebrates this; it confirms the market’s convulsive metamorphic powers, its ability to confer success unpredictably. In literature, it has redefined terms like “masterpiece” and “classic”.
‘Virginia Woolf didn’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘I wonder if Mrs Dalloway will be longlisted for the Booker?’’ Photograph: George C. Beresford/Getty Images
Few writers, though, display any prickliness. Instead, we end up with the acceptance characteristic of capitalism – which, lately in politics, has led to deep alienation and monstrous alternatives like Donald Trump. I was shocked to run into a novelist who used to regularly rant against the Booker soon after he’d finally won it. It seemed like a part of his personality had gone. Docilely, he was doing the promotional rounds, as if he had been administered a massive sedative. He was robbed of the crusading bitterness that once animated him, and had become a case study of the memory-erasing contentment that capitalism provides.
I’m not saying that the Booker shouldn’t exist. I’m saying that it requires an alternative, and the alternative isn’t another prize. It has to do instead with writers reclaiming agency. The meaning of a writer’s work must be created, and argued for, by writers themselves, and not by some extraneous source of endorsement. No original work is going to be welcomed with open arms by all, and the writer is not doing their job if they don’t make a case for their idea of writing through argumentation, debate, and fervour.
Virginia Woolf didn’t wake up in the morning and think, “I wonder if Mrs Dalloway will be longlisted for the Booker?” She wrote instead her essay, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, questioning prevailing forms of valuation in the establishment. Her reformulation of what the novel could be or do, its impact on the reader, and, crucially, the ways in which we value or ignore its possibilities, is as pressing – as political – now as it was then.
DH Lawrence, TS Eliot and Henry James too had to argue, in and outside their creative work, for their idea of the literary, because the question of why literature was important hadn’t been settled. It isn’t settled today.
But, as in other walks of life under capitalism, there has been a loss of initiative among writers: a readiness to let others decide why their work is significant while they busy themselves at literary festivals.
There has been, largely, an abjuring of the critical debates that should, at any given moment, define literature. In British academia, this loss of control over what constitutes value, especially in the humanities, has had its counterpart in what the UK government equivocally calls impact. “Impact” is judged not by gauging the importance of new scholarly work to other scholars, but to the market.
In emollient governmental language, impact is described as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. As academics have discovered, “beyond academia” is, fundamentally, the market. In other words, the significance of scholarly work will not be judged by the impact it has on the field, but outside it.
The reason why very few question the Booker is, of course, that they will be accused of sour grapes or speaking inappropriately. That’s all right. Woolf was speaking inappropriately when she wrote against the grain of the prevailing decorousness; she suffered from sour grapes, on behalf of her gender and her craft. But her questions needed to be raised, and expressed with pertinence. Only rarely is silence a useful riposte.