Booker’s children

The 50th anniversary of the prize highlights a changing culture of reading

Voting closed last week to determine the worthy recipient of the Golden Man Booker Prize for its 50th anniversary, and the winner will be announced next Sunday, July 8. In a venture that could have tipped into outright gimmickry had it not unleashed comforting waves of nostalgia, the Booker Prize Foundation has chosen to celebrate half a century of the honour by first inviting five writers to choose their favourite Booker winner of a decade each, and then putting their shortlist to an open vote. It’s a bit of easy self-promotion, as the Booker Prize does a proud twirl against the backdrop of the bloodbath at the Nobel Committee in Stockholm, with this year’s Nobel for Literature cancelled and no indication yet that it will recover from charges of nepotism, financial mismanagement and collusion with bookmakers to credibly announce two winners in 2019. But amid a changing culture of book appreciation, it is also a nudge to think about the changing role of literary prizes.

First, the shortlist. For the 1970s, writer-critic Robert McCrum chose In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul (Booker winner in 1971); poet Lemn Sissay picked Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987); novelist Kamila Shamsie nominated The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992); writer Simon Mayo chose Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009); and poet Hollie McNish settled on Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017).

Evolution of the Booker

With Mantel’s books now in the reckoning (she won the prize again in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies, sequel to Wolf Hall in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has been overtaken as the predictable favourite Booker winner of all time. But by this shortlist, even the appraisal of the 1980s has changed. Midnight’s Children had won the prize in 1981, the Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the Best of the Booker in 2008, as much for itself as for freeing the pens of writers across the subcontinent and elsewhere in the Commonwealth to find their own voices — in fact, when Zadie Smith, with her British-Jamaican heritage, burst on the literary scene in 2000 with White Teeth, the line to the Rushdie revolution was clear.

The point is, even as the Booker has grown as the foremost literary prize, it has itself evolved. Just recently, it broke its Commonwealth limitations and opened itself to American writers, thereby also competing with the U.S.’s Pulitzer and National Book Award for Fiction. Lincoln in the Bardo’s nomination for the Golden Booker is a nod to that controversial decision.

Moreover, the narrative conveyed by its list of Booker winners has shape-shifted too. Lively’s Moon Tiger about history and memory, for instance, was famously dismissed as a “Harrods” novel when it came out, but over time it has acquired a cult following, and its use of multiple vantage points to make a story whole is as much a part of the literary inheritance of writers today as the showiness of the mostly male brat pack of the 1980s and 1990s.

But while many publishers of English language fiction and writers themselves have protested the opening up of the prize to the Americans, arguing that they have their own U.S.-only big honours, there is no denying the Booker’s clout as the biggest prize of them all. In fact, book prizes all around are playing a bigger role in literary appreciation. The look back and little debates around the Golden Booker shortlist (why, for example, did J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, winner in 1999, not make the cut?) is also a reminder of the growing role of prizes and honours in determining reading options. Aided by social media, they create little bubbles of anticipation and help reading groups — most recently, the Women’s Prize for Fiction that Shamsie won for Home Fire had many of us catching up with the shortlist.

For positive reviews

In an essay in the online magazine Salon in 2012, book critic Laura Miller made a “case for positive book reviews” that in a way explains the utility of book prizes. Surveying the culture of criticism, she argued, “Today, the average work of literary fiction appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked.” It is also no longer the time “of magisterial critics who decreed which new books mattered according to their own beautifully articulated criteria, and who slapped down presumptuous pretenders”. Now the purpose is to bring a variety of well-critiqued recommendations to the eager reader who’s increasingly unable to get a wide-angled look at the literary choices. Perhaps, just as the positive but honest and informed review does the trick, so does the literary prize.

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