The literary world has issued a luke-warm greeting to proposals for a new alternative to the Man Booker prize, which this year has been attacked for allegedly putting readability ahead of achievement in literary fiction.
Authors, agents and publishers contacted by The Independent yesterday officially “welcomed” the new initiative, called The Literature Prize, which its founders - including literary agent Andrew Kidd - hope will recapture the Booker’s original spirit of “quality and ambition” when it launches next year. This year’s Booker has drawn criticism for its exclusion of Alan Hollinghurst’s widely-praised The Stranger’s Child from its shortlist, while the judging chair, Dame Stella Rimington, has angered the literary establishment after saying she wanted people “to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them”. She later called criticisms of the shortlist “pathetic”.
Author John Banville, one of those backing the new prize, appeared to offer a luke-warm endorsement in a statement released yesterday. “I am told that someone attached to the Man Booker this year spoke of the need for novels with more 'readability' - a peculiar term - but whether this indicates a fall in standards I don't know,” he said. “I lent my name to the new venture because I respect Andrew Kidd, who used to be my editor at Picador, and because I'd be very glad if there were to be a prize meant specifically for 'literary fiction', though this is another term I find peculiar.'”
Others said they felt a new prize would not be a perfect solution. The Booker is frequently a source of in-fighting within publishing.
“The Booker has had blips in the past years and this is going to be another one,” said The Independent’s Philip Hensher, who was shortlisted for the prize in 2008. “Another literature prize is welcome but we shouldn’t assume that’s not going to have blips in the future too.”
The Booker’s administrator Ion Trewin dismissed any idea that artistic achievement was not valued in the Booker. He told The Bookseller yesterday: "I think I have gone on record in the past as saying that I believe in literary excellence and readability -the two should go hand in hand."
Jonathan Taylor, chairman of The Booker Prize Foundation, said: "Since 1969 the prize has encouraged the reading of literary fiction of the highest quality and that continues to be its objective today.”
Meanwhile Booker judge Matthew D’Ancona said yesterday that he was in the final throes of deciding on next week’s winner. “The more prizes there are the better,” he said. “Good luck to them. I certainly don’t take it as a hostile intervention. I hope it thrives.” He said he encouraged any initiative which promoted reading.
Kidd said he was in “serious discussions with a major sponsor” about the new prize. The £50,000 annual Booker Prize’s winner will be revealed on 18 October.