According to the stewards of the Man Booker prize, the UK’s biggest book award is largely an unliterary affair.
A video of the prize’s history, released by the organization on YouTube in July to honor its 50th anniversary, paints a bizarre portrait of one of the English-speaking world’s most prestigious book awards. The video mostly ignores literature itself, spending most of its time instead describing in great detail the prize’s efforts to bolster its own press and public image. It’s full of back-patting and glad-handing, and overly concerned with jurist politics and author feuding.
The video seems to relish the arbitrary nature of the prize, which is chosen from a new pool of judges each year, who are in turn chosen by the advisory committee. As the Telegraph pointed out yesterday, a stalemate among the 1976 judges was resolved by sheer luck. The late Martyn Goff, administrator for the prize for over 30 years, recalls in archival video footage how one judge, exasperated by the amount of sex in British fiction, said she’d abstain from voting. The remaining two, deadlocked over their preferred books, flipped a coin. David Storey won for Saville.
Today, the winner of the prize receives £50,000 and the shortlisted authors each receive £2,500 (there’s no extra cash award for moving from the short- to the longlist) but there wasn’t always a cash prize for the shortlist. Elsewhere in the film, the English writer Michael Holroyd recalls his discomfort with that fact, and how he asked Michael Caine, a businessman who helped found the prize (and not the actor with whom he shares a name), if maybe the runners up should get cash, too. He also recounted Caine’s response:
“Michael, why do you think this prize is so popular?” [he said]. I said, “Well, it’s rather like the French prize, you know, [Prix] Goncourt—” He said, “No, no, forget all that; it’s popular because it’s so unfair! That’s what people like!”
This remark was apparently conveyed in jest. “The people involved with the Man Booker Prize have always had a healthy sense of humour and I must stress that when Michael Caine said the prize was popular precisely because it was unfair, he was joking,” Gaby Wood, the Booker Prize foundation’s literary director, writes by email.
The inescapable truth of book prizes is they’re unfair and arbitrary. Caring too much is a way of feeding the machine of celebrity and fandom, and detracts from the simple rewards of reading.
“The past judges interviewed about prize’s history don’t relish the suggestion that it’s unequal,” Woods writes, “they are just honest about the fact that all literary criticism is subjective.”