There are prizes that do more harm than good

The Booker prize has taken a clear decision to push middle-brow, popular fiction as if it were endangered
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The Independent Online

The annual Booker prize circus trundles round again, with its increasingly eccentric air. Every year the same media stories turn up. One author's heartwarming struggle to be published, rewarded by a place on the shortlist (and, mysteriously, no subsequent career whatever).

The annual Booker prize circus trundles round again, with its increasingly eccentric air. Every year the same media stories turn up. One author's heartwarming struggle to be published, rewarded by a place on the shortlist (and, mysteriously, no subsequent career whatever).

Another, celebrated author "snubbed" by being omitted from consideration. The best-looking woman on the shortlist rewarded by numerous illustrated diary pieces about her next project, a cosy memoir about life with her pet dog Raffles. A judge gets drunk and spills the beans about rows in camera. And then someone wins and a lot of mildly unwanted Christmas presents are handed over as a result.

The whole thing seems slightly unnecessary, and one starts to wonder what the whole thing is there for. Certainly, given the startlingly mediocre shortlist we're being presented with this year, one wonders whether it is really a prize for literary accomplishment at all. There is nothing actively wrong with any of these books, but none of them strike me as anything out of the ordinary. They are perfectly OK, conventional middlebrow books which one might use to while away a dull afternoon, but would hardly think deserving of any kind of prize.

Admittedly, it hasn't been a brilliant year for fiction, but the judges could have done a lot better than that. Excellent and original novels by Mark Haddon, Rachel Cusk, David Flusfeder, Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Barbara Trapido and Shena Mackay have been overlooked in favour of some really horrid banalities. I don't want to pick on any novelist in particular, and they are probably all well-meaning people, but it seems perfectly incredible that most of this shortlist is in competition for a prize that used to represent an imprimatur of high literary quality.

So how did it get to that point? More to the point, what is it that has led some commentators to hail this as a strong shortlist? A clue comes from the ease with which the shortlist spawned numerous features on the listed authors.

Two in particular, Damon Galgut and Claire Morrall, vied to fill the place of the "plucky underdog", and we found ourselves reading at length about how few copies they had sold before being shortlisted, and how many publishers turned them down before they found a final home. It's a cheerful story with a happy ending, but I wonder why it should be taken as any kind of automatic recommendation of literary quality. You can bet your bottom dollar that Zadie Smith wasn't turned down by many publishers.

But literary quality hardly comes into it now, and few of these features went into that question at all. It was just a heartwarming story. I get the feeling that the prize, now, is directed towards finding candidates who in some sense will make a good story. Of course, nobody thinks in exactly those terms: it is more to do with not taking famous names on trust, helping the underdog, correcting the innate bias of the London publishing machine. But the end result is exactly the same.

Moreover, there's a distinct sense of an agenda being served by the consistency of this shortlist, and it's an argument you hear everywhere in fashionable circles. The argument is that the English novel has for too long neglected its duty to chronicle modern life, and contemporary issues.

Presented with a shortlist like this, which is overwhelmingly about modern life, you start to wonder whether the judges knew exactly what they were looking for, and weren't prepared to consider anything outside that. Was the question of whether it was well done or not properly considered? Certainly, I find it incredible that anyone could dismiss Peter Carey's brilliant period fable, My Life as a Fake, and wish I could think it was considered sympathetically, on its own merits.

What we have, in the end, is a shortlist that pleases various agendas. It is dominated by women novelists, which of course would not matter if they were better novelists; it contains nothing challenging, innovative or even anything markedly individual in its voice; it sends a message that novelists had better start writing about the-way-we-live-now; and it provides a series of touching life-of-the-artist stories for the features pages. Something, perhaps, has gone wrong here.

A prize only has the authority of its winners, in the end. If a prize starts to overlook real achievement in favour of popularity or the serving of contemporary idées reçues, however much money is thrown at it, it will soon lose any kind of value. A parallel case recently came with the Mobo awards, for Music of Black Origin, which saw fit to give prizes to Justin Timberlake and Eminem. Those decisions were, no doubt, immensely popular with the industry, but it was a real missed opportunity. Instead of using the chance to promote some black artistes, known mainly to a black audience, they simply awarded something that needed little further promotion.

That may not seem like an obvious parallel with the Booker Prize, which certainly is promoting some little-known writers, but more generally, the prize this year has taken a clear decision to push middle-brow, popular fiction as if it were an endangered category. Very little will be achieved, in the end, by this; and it certainly does no good to pretend that it is still recognising literary worth. It looks very much like sucking up to booksellers.

And, more generally, the power of prizes in the literary world these days does have a very bad effect on the ambitions of writers. We can all think of novelists who destroyed their own talent by the simple means of writing books designed to win prizes. That tendency probably can't be avoided altogether, but the least a prize can do is not to create an impression that a specific sort of book, with a specific range of subjects, is certain to be taken more seriously than any other sort.

If prizes, at the very least, took their responsibility to acknowledge literary worth, regardless of eventual popularity, the photogenic appeal of the author, or their personally heartrending autobiography, it might encourage people to try a bit harder.

Prizes do have a potentially destructive effect on individual writers. This one, it is always stressed, is given for a book and never for a career; the sense being that it ought never to be handed out for services rendered in the past.

That is a good principle, but I wonder whether the principle ought not to be examined from another point of view. Given the well-documented destructive effect that prizes have on literary careers, perhaps judges ought to ask themselves this question. Does this book show the promise of subsequent development? Can we imagine a career progressing from this book, one robust enough to survive any cheque we throw at the lucky winner?

That doesn't seem to be a consideration, and yet the quality of any really great book is almost always connected to a sense of the author's fecundity not being exhausted by this volume. By contrast, I expect we can all think of prize-winning authors from recent years who barely had even one book in them, and don't seem at all likely to repeat their one success.

The result is a situation damaging for the prize, damaging for the authors, and damaging for literature; prizes being given to books that don't deserve them, or don't need them, in the dubious name of literary quality.