Discussion: Bookering up the Books

No two people read the same book. So if reading is such a subjective experience, the idea of trying to decide conclusively which books are ‘best’ is clearly absurd. Years ago, I blogged about the difficulties I have with the widely used 5 star rating scheme. Yet still every year, panels of judges sit down to hand down prizes to books and every year, feathers are ruffled. In 2019, the Booker Prize awarded two joint winners. Lots of people were very annoyed. In 2020, they haven’t shortlisted The Mirror and the Light. Once again, lots of people. Very annoyed. Including Hilary Mantel who had obviously been hoping for a hat-trick. And I find myself pondering as I do every year – how far do literary awards manipulate the way we look at books?

The most obvious benefit of a literary award is the boost to discoverability. With the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, it really doesn’t pay to write fiction. Even successful authors can often only afford to do it as a side hustle. Bagging a place on the shortlist for a high profile award such as the Booker is one of the only ways to get yourself the kind of sales that would allow you to actually give up the day job. It also doesn’t hurt that most of the bigger prizes tend to come with a nice chunk of cash, making for a significant boost to annual income.

So far, so good economic sense. But it’s this concept of the ‘best’ that gets my back up. My partner is a huge fan of Inside No. 9 and the episode ‘And the Winner Is‘ captures a lot of the cliches around any kind of award within the arts. There’s the nominees who shouldn’t win because they won it last time. Incidentally, this happened to me at school when I won the English prize in Year Seven and then wasn’t considered for it in Year Eight or Nine. Weirdly, that didn’t bother me at the time but I do think it wasn’t fair. It’s the opposite of celebrating excellence. Then there’s the nominees who should have won in a previous year but were unfairly robbed and then get waved through in a subsequent year with an inferior book. Being honest, this does seem to have been what happened in 2019 with Margaret Atwood and The Testaments. It was … all right. But it was also the sequel to the iconic The Handmaid’s Tale which famously didn’t win in 1986. As a footnote here, they gave the prize that year to Kingsley Amis. Yes, that Kingsley Amis. Oh, the irony.

There are also times when the Booker Prize panel plainly just got it wrong. I remember my book group read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam and we all wondered by what criteria it could possibly have been judged the best book of 1998. If you haven’t read it – don’t bother. It’s pointlessly nasty and also weirdly transphobic. Plus it is potentially the reason why McEwan then went on to not win in 2001 for Atonement. My personal theory though is that said loss has a lot to do with strong thematic similarities between Atonement and The Blind Assassin which had actually won in 2000. Alternatively, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is also just a blinder of a book.

Essentially, winning the Booker Prize seems to be no firm guarantee of longevity. Even though the Booker website boasts of the various famous authors that they have celebrated, it struck me so many of these are already fading. Iris Murdoch has particularly fallen out of favour. Julian Barnes has described the Booker Prize selection process as a ‘game of posh bingo’. I would tend to agree with him. In 2014, I followed the shortlisting and judging process very closely. I had received an early review copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and it was genuinely exciting to see the book gain traction, positive reviews and finally reach victory. I remember reading fellow nominee We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and thinking that it didn’t stand a chance. It was like following an election campaign. But while I adored Deep North, it was also a scorchingly painful read and not one that I am likely to revisit. And given that it is also borderline unfilmable, I am unsure how well-known it is six years on.

The problem is that the Booker Prize and many like it do have the suspicious whiff of Book Snobbery. In 2011, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion complained that the Booker Prize shortlist for that year was ‘too readable’. Phrases are thrown around such as ‘aimed towards an intelligent audience’, or celebrating ‘quality literature’. They’re inoffensive words on their own but they represent part of a wider issue. Genre fiction is serious under-represented on award shortlists. I have posted before about the blurred line between literary fiction and other genres and I don’t want to repeat myself but I hate, hate, hate that deep-rooted assumption that slapping the word ‘literary’ on a novel makes it somehow ‘better’. I firmly believe that Terry Pratchett was one of the wittiest and most intelligent writers of the twentieth century and yet the literary establishment tended to sneer upon him. Well, more fool them. He was the UK’s highest selling author throughout the 1990s.

I started looking at the ‘grown up’ shelves of the bookshop when I was about fifteen years old. I never really went in for Young Adult. Back then, I would definitely have considered whether a book had won an award as a marker for whether or not to buy. These days, I pay very little heed. An ex-colleague once mentioned that her mother bought her the whole Booker prize shortlist every year and while that is a lovely family tradition, in reading terms it sounded like a lot of work. For me, I don’t tend to find the Booker prize shortlist particularly ‘fun’. I will look slightly more closely at the Costa prize and in terms of non-fiction, I tend to think that an award can be a useful indicator of readability. After all, there’s a big difference between being good at researching a topic and being good at actually writing about it. But more than anything – I’m more secure now in where my next step in my own reading adventure. I can love a book and be fully aware that it is a bit daft (hello Outlander) and I can loathe a book while recognising its artistry (most of Shirley Jackson’s creative output) but after a certain point, I do want to read books that I actually enjoy. I am in my thirties, I have a child and a job and a houseful of responsibilities. I am past the point of being guilted into reading books just because I feel I ‘should’.

So – does a nomination for a literary prize make you pick up a book? What role do book prizes play in your reading?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone
(Visited 119 times, 17 visits today)

12 thoughts on “Discussion: Bookering up the Books

  1. “No two people read the same book” is such a wise observation. I have mixed feelings about these awards! I like to look at the books they’ve selected, because I like looking at lists of books, but I don’t treat it as a tremendously strong recommendation. If there’s a book on an awards list that I haven’t heard of before — especially by an author of color — that sounds appealing, I’ll pick it up, but yeah, mostly I don’t put much stock in them.

  2. I’ve only really become consciously aware of prises like Booker and Women’s Prise within the last year or so, probably since I began engaging with the bookish community. Before that, I lived in my own book bubble. I knew what I liked, found ways to challenge myself, but had no real concept of ‘Highbrow’, Commercial’, or any of the other terms being banded about to differentiate between various types of literature. Since my growing awareness of prises, I have been directing my reading further towards current longlists and past winners, and have had a mixed experience. On the one hand, I have encountered some novels I probably wouldn’t have been automatically drawn to otherwise, and have appreciated being forced out of my comfort zone. I also feel my reading life has a stronger structure than before, which is especially important for me during the current climate. The down side of this is that I am starting to feel more self-conscious about my reading. Am I reading the right things? Are some of my favorite novels ‘bad’ literature? Does any of this even matter? I have gained many wonderful things through broadening my literary horrizens with these lists, but there is a little bit of me which misses my bookish bubble, as it did not contain book shame and guilt. Sorry for this somewhat rambling, thinking out loud comment.

    1. I think a lot of these definitions of ‘high-brow’ and ‘commercial’ are quite arbitrary. I am reading Outlander at the min which would not be branded as literature by almost anyone and yet I keep coming across really well-put observations. It’s made me think a lot about trauma and how we keep going through difficult times. But it’s genre fiction so people ignore it.
      I agree that I can feel self-conscious too about my reading but then I also remember that I have limited spare time and deserve to actually enjoy my reading – I all too often end up picking a book that everyone is talking about and having a shriek about how violent I find it. So I end up back in the middle of Jane Austen again and the cycle continues. If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, you’re definitely doing something right. Thank you for the comment – always lovely to hear from you

  3. Great post! I pay attention to a lot of awards. I like them because they introduce me to authors who I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I follow the Booker, Women’s Prize, National Book Award, Newbery, Printz, and a few others. The judges do tend to pick snobby books rather than readable ones. I don’t mind reading challenging books occasionally, but I don’t think I’d be happy on a diet of only Booker winners. Sometimes I like books that are just fun, easy, and escapist.

    1. I think they are good for discoverability – I think there is definitely something about the Booker which does feel a bit ‘different’ somehow. I have a much better success rate with Costa finalists – they tend to feel less pretentious. This is good advice – award winners are fine but you need other books too for a balanced reading experience. I will remember that.

  4. Great Post. I must admit I am more likely to avoid a Booker winner than seek it out. I have read six, I thought one was great, a future classic (White Tiger), three were good, one was poor, and one was unreadable and abandoned. Obviously many other people (including the judges) would not agree with my opinion. It will be interesting to see which survive to become standard or classic works. I think as long as it generates discussion and publicity for books, it is a good thing, and it may have saved some good but more difficult books from oblivion.

    1. It is a good point – certain Booker winners have just vanished without a trace or become of very niche interest. I would personally avoid Kingsley Amis for example. Reading is so personal – it’s very difficult for a panel to make a decision that everyone will be happy with

  5. Hello. I just discovered your blog (5 minutes ago) and this won’t be super long because I have to go finish Westing Game. Just want to say that this is amazing and I’ll probably be coming here for book recommendations a lot. Also, I’d you haven’t read Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone it’s the best book I’ve ever read. Of course this is partial as you stated above but I thought I would recommend it just because it’s so fantabulous.

  6. I’m with you, I now pick award lists that better suit my tastes – like the Costa (regularly find a great read there) and the Walter Scott Historical Fiction prize.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.