The reactionary hand-wringing greeting the news that this year’s Booker nominees have had a better sales boost post-nomination than any other shortlist in the prize’s history is unsurprising to anyone who regularly reads broadsheet literary columns, but credit the detractors thusly: they’re putting their prize money where their mouth is. Yesterday saw the announcement of a new, Booker-rivalling prize, simply called The Literature Prize.
The prize’s spokesperson, literary agent Andrew Kidd, claimed that the prize had been set up as a reaction to the Booker committee’s desire to select nominees based on their ‘readability’, claiming the Booker ‘now prioritises a notion of “readability” over artistic achievement,’ which is exactly the kind of sentence that so regularly puts ‘literary prize judge’ at the top of the list alongside astronaut, ballerina and zoo keeper when kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up. Kidd went on to suggest that the prize could be up and running as soon as 2012.
Which, fine. OK. Have another prize. One more can’t hurt, and if it encourages people to read something they usually might not, then all the better. But here’s the thing: when you talk about ‘readability’ as if it’s a bad thing, you sound insufferable. It’s not like the Booker committee is suddenly clogging the shortlist with celebrity autobiographies and Lee Childs: this is still a prize where the bookies’ favourite is Julian Barnes. Yes, there are nods to genre fiction with the likes of Patrick DeWitt’s darkly comic western The Sisters Brothers, but if you discount genre fiction entirely as a valid means of literary expression, then you also lose a hell of a lot of Cormac McCarthy who, last time I checked, was thought of pretty highly.
Kidd and his ilk talk of the Booker having lost its prestige. Expressing his scepticism at the capability of this year’s judges, New Statesman’s Leo Robson asks if ‘we really believe that [Booker jury chairperson and ex-MI5 chief Stella Rimington] would have recognised the virtues of, say, Midnight’s Children‘. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, of course, won the Booker in 1981, and subsequently the ‘Booker of Bookers’ twice in 1993 and 2008 as the book judged to be the greatest ever to have claimed the prize.
And, frankly, if Midnight’s Children is what the Booker is leaving behind in favour of ‘readability’, then good. Have you tried reading Midnight’s Children lately? For such a universally acclaimed novel, it’s pretty unreadable: not because it’s too difficult for the masses, as the founders of the Literature Prize might like to think, but because it bludgeons the reader on every page with its clunkily metaphorical central conceit, and it contains sentences like ‘My skin is the outward expression of the internationalism of my spirit’ (that spoken by an Indian woman with white blotches on her skin). DAMMIT, SALMAN, YOU HAVE LOST ME AGAIN – SAY WHAT YOU MEAN FOR ONCE.
If the Literature Prize can grow into an award that complements the Booker, and shows no compunction about reaching out to the general reading public to increase sales and broaden some literary horizons, then it will have served its purpose, and long may it continue. If, however, it turns out to be nothing more than a snobbish hissy fit thrown by self-anointed guardians of culture because their favourite book of the past year didn’t make the Booker shortlist, then it’s just another unnecessary distraction from actually reading something worthwhile.