I’d like to start by pointing out that I’m partially playing devil’s advocate here. For what it’s worth, I’m highly supportive of awards in the arts – on the sole condition that they always help to drum up interest and enthusiasm for literature from the general public.
At first glance, the Man Booker Prize seems like a worthwhile example of a successful literary prize. Launched in 1969, it has consistently sung the praises of exciting new authors from a wide range of backgrounds, in its constant quest to find “the best book of the year”.
However, there’s a problem with this. Looking down the list of previous winners, only Yann Martel’s Life of Pi stands out as something I’ve actually read. My family won’t have read any of them, and my housemates certainly won’t have: so is something wrong with the Man Booker formula?
Admittedly, I do recognise a lot of the names in the list. They’re mostly titles which fill my ‘Interest’ wishlist on Amazon – which normally means ‘I would read this… if I actually had the time’. But, there aren’t many which I’ve ever dared to pick up. And ‘picking it up’ is part of the problem, as the majority of these books are hefty monstrosities; they’d definitely be my first port of call if I heard an intruder in my house, but more often than not I don’t have the energy to wade through these brick-like tomes of tough prose.
“Can you really be entertained by these wordy blockbusters, or are they all just art for art’s sake?”
I remember seeing Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries proudly displayed on the central table in Waterstones, a few weeks after it was announced as the winner in 2013. Catton’s novel was a record-breaker, weighing in at a daunting 832 pages, and I remember looking at it in the shop and wondering secretly if all the judges had actually finished it. To put the book’s astounding size in some context, the unabridged audiobook is over 29 hours long. Let’s hope nobody tries to listen to it in one sitting…
Of course, it’s not the book’s length, necessarily. After all, I’d be the first to admit that most people are faster readers than me. Instead, I’m asking if they’re actually worth reading in the first place, and if it’s accessible to the majority of readers. For me, it boils down to that eternal question: what is the true purpose of a novel? Can you really be entertained by these wordy blockbusters, or are they all just art for art’s sake?
I found an interesting blog called ‘Everyday Analysis’ which argues that the prize has now simply become an over-politicised laughing-stock, pointing out that winners offer “not the stories of the books, but their ideological content”. This theory is backed up by the sales figures and therefore presumably by public interest: only three longlisted books were placed in the Waterstones Top 100 bestsellers (at the time of writing).
“It’s ultimately just another highbrow, cliquey award, voted for by the upper echelons of arts nobility”
And this, without a doubt, is the greatest issue with the Prize: it’s ultimately just another highbrow, cliquey award, voted for by the upper echelons of arts nobility with little concern for popular interest. Even though the winners are well-publicised, splattered over the media and stocked favourably in bookshops nationwide, you have to be in an elite inner circle to be introduced to the majority of the books (and even then, you might not actually enjoy them). It would be like judging the best radio output in the world by looking solely at Radio 4 content.
As much as I can happily accept the prize’s existence, it leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth because, ultimately, I’d prefer something more inclusive. Looking back once again at the list of winners, Life of Pi’s success surprises me. I read it on the recommendation of a friend, and thought it was a stunning novel, but I’d have probably thought twice had I noticed the ‘Man Booker’ sticker on the front.
This prize isn’t really a celebration of high-quality literature at all: if you ask me, it’s a self-indulgent status symbol that hints at painstaking prose and overwhelming loquacity (an aptly pretentious word, in the circumstances). Give me the Costa Book Awards, any day.