I try not to read the comments sections of a lot of websites because generally they are filled with postulating jerks who have glanced at the headline and perhaps the sub-header of an article and become incensed enough to burst their self-righteous gland all over the internet. A marked exception to this is the yearly Booker backlash, which I watch with that sick pleasure usually reserved for early episodes of Masterchef.
There’s not much to disagree with in The Guardian comment article, yet somehow these wonders of humanity find reasons for indignation. A personal favourite response is: The Man Booker Prize is very useful in that it gives me a list of books I don’t need to read. The classic reaction is that the Booker Prize is elitist, snobbish, and exists only to inflict the tastes of certain lit-crit gatekeepers upon a reading public. This was further fuelled by last year’s complete cock-up when the judges openly declared one of the criteria would be ‘readability’ – a notion so subjective and vague that people are still arguing about what it means – which basically acknowledged that up until that point they were going for those books whose obscurity is a measure of their worth.
At the heart of all the criticisms based on marginalising a certain genre, author, or level of accessibility seems to be the problem that people just don’t agree with prizes in general. Readers don’t appear to want to be told what to read, still less when it makes them look like snobs or assholes. But this completely neglects to recognise what the prize is actually for.
The prize wasn’t created to crap on the hundreds of books each year that don’t win, it was created to celebrate the one book that does. Yes, by including one you shut out many. And I welcome the demarkation. It doesn’t force the book down my throat, but it flags that some people somewhere have seen something good in it.
The question when approaching any of the winners of the Booker is not should you read a book because it has won The Man Booker prize, it is should you read this book that has won The Man Booker prize. The mechanism for decision is not the prize itself, it is the agent – the prize is promotional, not prescriptive.
Literary fiction accounts for a tiny percentage of overall book sales in the UK – far smaller than mass-market romance or crime and thriller. The Man Booker Prize provides a small number of authors in this genre with exposure to a huge audience; it provides bookshops with incentive to do front of store displays for titles that may otherwise only get spine-space on the shelf for a few months; it celebrates something in writing that isn’t marketability.
It drives up sales.
The benefit of The Man Booker Prize is the fact that it caters to a small section of the book reading public. It astounds me that every year we have to re-hash the same conversation about inclusivity (regardless of how entertaining it can be). Aside from the fact that books are a business, not celebratory pancake of everyone’s equal talent, there’s one comment that pretty much sums it up for me: A culture of anti-intellectualism helps no-one.