Cast your mind back a few weeks to the creation of the Literature Prize. The what? The Literature Prize. Remember? It was set up in response to that Man Booker shortlist that destroyed the very concept of literature as we know it by making such radical demands as a desire for books to be readable? Remember when that happened? Well, anyway, it totally did. And you know whose fault it was? Stella Rimington. Single-handedly did more damage in her post as head of the 2011 Booker judging panel than she ever did when she was in charge of MI5, at least if certain hand-wringing quarters are to be believed.
Rimington’s detractors seemed to suggest that, as her primary vocation was not centred around literature, she was ill-equipped to appreciate the ‘virtues’ (inverted commas author’s own) of, say, Midnight’s Children (notwithstanding the fact that she was surrounded by writers and academics, or, oh, I don’t know, that she was head of MI5 so probably has a pretty good head on her shoulders).
Well, the Booker organisation is either coasting through life in a shower of daisies and rainbows, blithely unaware of the carnage it leaves in its wake, or it’s tying a khaki headband around its temples, loading up on squat thrusts and carving ‘IT’S ON MOFOS’ onto its knuckles, because the announcement of the 2012 judging panel is hardly going to alleviate the fears of cultural mavens that the prize is dumbing down: yes, the chair is Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, and the rest of the panel is the usual mix of academics, writers and historians, but ARGH! HORRORS! AN AC-AC-AC-ACTOR! An actor on the panel! And a TV actor at that! And with that, monocles fall to the ground in shock in drawing rooms around the country.
Never mind that Dan Stevens, star of ITV’s all-conquering doily’n’teacup-porn Downton Abbey, is also an alumnus of the English Literature department at Cambridge, columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, editor-at-large for online quarterly The Junket and regular on the BBC’s Review Show; just pay attention to how much the Booker is straining to push his literary side through references to his starring roles in adaptations of beloved books (The Line of Beauty, Sense and Sensibility) and, most eye-rollingly of all… in fact, let me quote this part directly, because it’s too good: ‘He is also a prolific narrator of audiobooks: his reading of Louisa Young’s My Dear I Wanted to Tell You won ‘Audiobook of the Year 2011′ at the Galaxy National Book Awards, and his recordings of Wolf Hall and War Horse were shortlisted for ‘Audiobook of the Year 2010′.’
None of that will matter to the prize’s detractors, anyway. They’ll take one look at the words ‘TV star’ and splutter mercilessly from now until October. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe the Booker should continue to pick judges based on how much they’ll offend the sensibilities of self-appointed cultural guardians. At least that way the dour prigs will storm off in a huff, one by one, and leave the reading to people who care more about the books than who’s reading them.