Boyd Tonkin: Go for the gold, or love the stone? The Booker winner has lessons for the prize
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 18 October 2013
Normally, and understandably, it's a moment for simple gush and gratitude. Seldom does the winner's speech at a Man Booker ceremony achieve weight and grace at once. Eleanor Catton, although at 28 the youngest author to carry off the prize, managed both at the Guildhall on Tuesday night. It was especially good to hear her - in carefully formulated ideas that no one seems to have noticed much - invoke Lewis Hyde's The Gift when she discussed the division between "a culture based on value" and "a culture based on worth".
In her occult epic of the New Zealand gold rush, The Luminaries, Catton contrasts the Europeans' hunger for gold as currency and wealth with the Maori reverence for the local greenstone - a sort of nephrite jade - as a "treasure" beyond trade or hoard. Unlike gold, the pounamu that her greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare seeks doesn't advertise its value; on the riverbed, it was "as dull and ordinary on the exterior as it was bright and iridescent within". For him, "one could not put a price upon a treasure just as one could not purchase mana [prestige]". On the other hand, "Gold was not a treasure… Gold was like all capital in that it had no memory: its drift was always onward, away from the past".
First published in 1983, and reprinted a few years ago by Canongate, Hyde's The Gift considers what you might call the chasm between gold and greenstone in the production and dissemination of art. Creative labour, as he shows, has rarely sat snugly within the rules of the marketplace; good art has often failed to pay its way. Yet Hyde moves from suspicion of the artwork as "commodity" towards a nuanced recognition that the "gift exchange" that the artist craves, and the cash bargain the commercial market needs, "need not be wholly separate spheres". How to reconcile value and worth, the gold and the greenstone, remains of course a besetting anxiety both for creators and all those who find an audience for their work - publishers included.
This, you might even surmise, is the story of the Booker Prize itself. It has repeatedly taken up fiction of high ambition, written if you like as "gift", and sent it out to thrive within a larger marketplace. From Salman Rushdie to Arundhati Roy, Ben Okri to (yes) Eleanor Catton, its glamour and clamour have helped merge art and trade. But for such books even to stand a chance of wider exposure, they need the early and strong support of far-sighted publishers. Here again, commerce and patronage, currency and "treasure", uneasily coincide. Like many winners before her, Catton comes from a literary house - Granta - where distinctiveness matters as much as, or more than, sheer numbers.
Smart, small publishers has always sought to square the artist's gift and the trader's exchange. Well-directed prizes have served that mission too. Now, however, the balance of power has shifted further towards those monster entities with less time or care to lavish on fiction as "gift". The merger between Penguin and Random House has led the way towards further integration. With the Man Booker itself, I fear that the entrance of the Americans next year, with their huge armoury of clout and hype, will mean that the chances of victory or even shortlist acclaim for a non-standard book from a non-celebrity author, and a non-conglomerate publisher, will shrink.
I yearn to be proved wrong. In fact, the widespread airing of such doubts may perhaps ensure that next year's panel tends to distrust the corporate transatlantic blockbuster. In the longer term, though, the expanded remit of this award will almost certainly benefit the bigger, and the richer, battalions. Let's hope that the triumph of The Luminaries will not mark the moment when the Man Booker began to abandon greenstone for gold.
When Harry met Bridget atop the charts
The four hardback authors on top of the sales pile after last's week's "Super Thursday" rash of celebrity releases look like the line-up on a weird game show – or, perhaps, Come Dine with Me. Helen Fielding ran ahead of the pack with Bridget 3, followed by memoirs from manager Harry Redknapp and actor David Jason, and more fiction in the form of Wilbur Smith's new yarn. Talk about strange bedfellows - but all are real books that each took more than £100,000 in real shops. I can just about swallow that.
Closed doors for the Cork maestro?
For one fine writer, a later-life door opens onto spotlights and plaudits; for another, it slams shut – perhaps for ever. I rejoiced in Alice Munro's Nobel Prize last week. But what this utterly deserved honour from the Swedish Academy for "a master of the contemporary short story" means is that another such luminary, William Trevor, may never get the Nobel.
Now aged 85, the prolific author from Mitchelstown, County Cork, has no less than Munro transformed a small patch of ground into an echoing arena for every variety of human emotion and experience. Not for a second should any Trevor aficionado begrudge Munro's award, which may help boost the global standing of the short form. But the prize business – like love, like life – can so often be arbitrarily cruel. It would take a Trevor, or a Munro, to do full justice to its treacherous ironies.
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