Julian Barnes’ Happy Ending

“[A]lthough the Man Booker can change a writer’s life, a prize is only a prize,” Booker Prize judge Gaby Wood has written in the Telegraph. “It’s not an investigation, it’s not a work of criticism, and it’s not the result of common-or-garden enjoyment, either. There are all sorts of other lives books can have.”

The judge’s words seem to be a direct response to unprecedented criticism levelled at the Man Booker Prize this year. The prize, worth a little over A$75,000, is arguably the highest-profile English-language literary award. For what it’s worth, Julian Barnes took the honours this year, after having been thrice shortlisted, for his novel, The Sense of an Ending. According to Michael Wood in the London Review of Books, the novel, the chief theme of which is “Englishness”, is “the story of an obtuseness that generally cannot see the damage it does, and yet in a brief moment of illumination grasps the malevolence lurking in what it took to be its quiet life.”

The Booker’s profile is matched, as Guy Rundle points out on Crikey, by its idiosyncrasies. “Everything about the Booker is bizarre,” Rundle writes, “from its name - which fuses current sponsor the Man Group, with half of the original sponsor, Booker-McConnell - to the ever-changing judges, to the degree of anguished debate it draws about the state of the culture”. Much of the Booker anguish this year has been about an alleged dumbing-down of the award, following statements by the chief judgment, former British spy chief (and spy novelist) Stella Riminton, in which she stressed that the judges had prioritised “readable” novels in the shortlisting process: “"We want people to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them.”

Jeanette Winterson weighed in impressively on the debate in The Guardian. Under the headline, ‘Ignore the Booker brouhaha: readability is no test for literature’, she writes that the row “is a misunderstanding about literature and its purpose. We are nervous about anything that seems elitist or inaccessible, and we apologise for the arts in a way that we never do for science.”

According to Rundle, the dumbing-down began about a decade ago (and signals the death of “reflexive humanism”). But the Booker’s been odd ever since it was first awarded in 1969. The official website says the prize is awarded to “the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.” Given the Commonwealth is an accident of history nowadays as peculiar as it is irrelevant (Mozambique, anyone?), it should be of no surprise that these two character traits are reflected in the Booker - and yet the table-thumping oddly persists. The Booker is a booster for British publishing (Barnes' publisher is printing an additional 25,000 extra copies of The Sense of an Ending as a result of his win) and, given the inwardness of US literary prizes, the English language - arguably the globe’s most fecund literary language - has hitherto lacked a truly all-encompassing literary prize.

No more, following news that a new prize, dubbed the Prize for Literature, will be set up to reward to reward “quality and ambition”. The prizemoney is still being raised, but an impressive phalanx of writers (including John Banville, Pat Barker, Nicole Krauss and David Mitchell) are reported to be backing the prize.

Related posts