Wednesday, October 12, 2005


A little cynicism about the Booker is called for says the Grumpy Old Bookman. The "merciless winner-take-all mechanism which accompanies this annual jamboree" does no-one any good he says in an essay reprinted from last year.
When you and I are faced with a book, and asked to say whether it is a masterpiece or an overblown piece of self-indulgent nonsense, there is no universally recognised scale against which we can measure the book and come to a clear conclusion. Judging a book is a matter of taste and sensibility, and you are likely to maintain that your taste and sensibility are superior to mine. (You are probably right, since my taste is notoriously vulgar.)

As far as the Booker Prize is concerned, it is safe to say that the choice of the ‘best’ book of the year is inevitably a matter of opinion rather than fact. And not even unanimous opinion. In almost every year there are press reports of disagreements among the judges, and in some years we hear of ‘compromise choices’ or the chairman’s casting vote. We also know that, in one particular case, the eventual winner was unusually ‘fortunate’.
Yann Martell's win for Life of Pi in 2002 he points out was as flukey as hell, he says. But it's the fallout from the prize which most concerns him:
... observe, please, what happens when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced (in any year). What happens is that the media, the critics, and the public, all behave as if there is some absolute sense in which the winner is the best book of the year. They act as if the book has been held up against a ruler, a universally agreed scale, and has been found, indisputably, and scientifically, to be ‘better’ than any other.
And while the winner is feted, it's pretty much at the expense of other novels.

I actually think the Booker is a good thing. It gets readers thinking about, talking about, comparing books on the list. It creates a dialogue about what the novel is and where it's heading. But yes, we must keep a healthy sense of proportion about the whole procedings. There are other excellent novels on the shortlist. Other excellent novels on the longlist. And other excellent novels which did not make it to either.

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