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The Booker brand?

Razia Iqbal | 15:12 UK time, Wednesday, 29 July 2009

booker_mon.jpgIt is not surprising to hear this year's Chair of the Booker Judges, James Naughtie, saying that "we believe it to be one of the strongest lists in recent memory".

He is hardly likely to say it was anything but among the strongest etc. Every year, every chair of the judges makes claims for the choices they alighted on. Prizes for books as for many areas of the arts are utterly subjective, yet strangely seductive, not just for writers, but for those who write about them, we journalists.

But it's not the case for all writers. I've heard that Sebastian Faulks, whose new novel, A Week in December, is published in the autumn, didn't want his book submitted.

There is a savagely critical and funny scene in the novel about book prizes, by the way, and whether his book was or was not submitted, it has set me thinking about the literary novel and prizes and the attendant madness that ensues around them.

Faulks is of course a very popular novelist and doesn't necessarily need prizes for his books to become better known, though no doubt merely being on the long list, short list and of course winning a prize such as the Booker helps sales, and can transform reputations.

But there are several previous winners who, while they may not have sunk without a trace, have hardly continued to make an impression with subsequent books.

During the last 10 years or so, Booker judges have veered towards the quirky, even though many of the short lists have included the literary grandees of our age. This year, there are a few first-time novelists, but it is a solidly establishment and mainstream type of list, with double winner, J M Coetzee in there, as is previous winner, A S Byatt; shortlisted before twice, but never won, is Colm Toibin and Hilary Mantel, whose latest book is recommended summer reading in many a publication recently, make a powerful group hoping to get to the shortlist.

The joker in the pack is already being identified as James Lever's Me Cheeta, the memoirs of Tarzan's chimp, Cheeta. I wonder if it will make it to the shortlist. Because if there is one thing the Booker is associated with, it is that weird notion, the literary novel, and in bookish circles this is a hornets' nest.

Robert Harris, a very popular novelist, who doesn't need the publicity created by the Booker, has in recent years been viciously critical of the prize and the idea that novels can only be defined as literary because of an inherent intelligence that makes them difficult to read.

I would though, argue with his contention that the literary greats of the 19th Century, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Eliot would have laughed at the pretensions of the Booker.

It is, of course, true that those novelists saw one of their prime aims as wanting to entertain, but they would no doubt have looked on their work as being far superior to the penny dreadfuls and other sensational literature of their age.

And today, there are novels that people think they should read because they are shorlitsted for prizes or have won them. The success of Richard and Judy's Book club has blown a lot of that out of the water, and publishers have taken the programme seriously as they have watched it transform sales, and give potential audiences of books guidance over what they should buy.

The brand still exists, even though Richard and Judy's book club doesn't as such. In that sense, perhaps that is what the Booker has become, little more than a brand.


  • Comment number 1.

    if the booker is so good at picking great books, why hasnt M Amiss never won? Ive read about a 12 booker winners and a few of his books are far better than some winners

  • Comment number 2.

    What makes for a good book is wholly subjective. One man's meat is another's poison.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think book awards are guides for institutional sales, libraries and schools. The reading public has likes and dislikes and although timely books about most current events tend to do well, they reflect political beliefs and social trends more than literary accomplishment. Is the book still being bought five years after first publication, that should be for awards. There is a difference between "sales" and literary value.

  • Comment number 4.

    Amazing to read the hullabloo about Oxfam and the complaints from other shops that they have an unfair advantage selling second hand books.

  • Comment number 5.

    The real winners are those that turn down these tin badges.

    Who can afford to buy recreational books these days? The library was burnt down by developer sponsored arsonists. Oh yes the yuppies and a few Booker addicts can.
    No thanks I don't even rate the booker Prize and since the industry has excluded me from playing their game previously I am not about to forgive them now I can afford those ridiculous prices. Another old establishment collapsing under its own dead weight.

  • Comment number 6.

    "Who can afford to buy recreational books these days?"

    Plenty of people, apparently. Book sales by volume in the UK are up 9% in the last five years, which includes two years of credit crunch.

  • Comment number 7.

    Indeed, just who can afford to buy recreational books these days, but the better questions is just who can afford to get published. All the evidence points that commercial publishers lists like HC and RH are shrinking drastically and there doesn't seem anything for the independent author. Here's an article in the wall street journal ( which goes into length about how the slush pile is just dying from under the feet of traditional publishers. It's really depressing!

    No thanks I don't even rate the booker Prize and since the industry has excluded me from playing their game previously I am not about to forgive them now I can afford those ridiculous prices. Another old establishment collapsing under its own dead weight. Just use a publisher like Schiel & Denver I guess ( or Lulu I guess.


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