Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Booker Prize Is Evil





British author Robert Harris, while admitting that there is no way that he would ever win the Booker Prize, decided to tell the world how little that bothers him. In an interview with Lucy Cavendish, he condemned the whole process:



"The Booker Prize is evil," he says. "No great authors in the past, from Dickens through to Kipling, Waugh, Joyce, Orwell etc would have had anything to do with it.

"The Booker casts a long shadow over literary life. It has swollen like a monstrous boil obscuring anything that was ever good about it. It encourages and fosters the difference between supposed 'literary' novels and other perfectly good books. It reveres a certain type of novel yet great writers of the world may never have featured in it and lots of books that are short-listed in it disappear without a trace."
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Harris says he wants to speak out against the Booker because he feels so strongly about it. "I can see it probably looks a bit dog-in-the-manger as there is no conceivable way I would ever win it, or should win it," he says, "but that's not why I am saying this. The Booker ruins people's lives. It does a disservice to the public and it is damaging to authors and the industry, especially this hateful, ghastly long list. Authors feel their book has failed even before it's been published if it is not selected."

He says that when the prize first started it was probably to help bring the work of not so well known authors into the public realm. "I can see for a book like Yann Martel's Life of Pi it is a good thing, but over the past five or so years the judges have kowtowed to the worst sort of political correctness. It's hard to think of anyone who is non-PC or doesn't deal with the concerns of the sexual minority or colonial guilt who could possibly make it on to the list. The books are all written in the same way. They are elegant, elegiac but dull and dry. They do not connect with their readers. They are just deadening to read."

He saves the worst of his criticism though for the actual prize ceremony itself. "I go to the dinner and there are only about 20 authors there out of about 1,000 people. The rest are all the agents and the buyers and it's full of ghastly phoney hangers-on. In fact, I think the Booker sucks the oxygen out of the air.

It has been milked by publicists. No wonder that book Crystal is selling so well. It is probably a more enjoyable read."
Sour grapes? You decide, but I have to think that's largely what's going on here since Harris writes the kind of novel that is unlikely to ever win any of the various literary prizes handed out each year. He's a fine writer of a certain type of book, and I've enjoyed several of them. The whole tone of what he has to say in this interview makes me wonder if Cavendish didn't just catch him on a particularly bad day when he was feeling resentful about the caste system that exists in the publishing world, a system in which authors seem to have been generally relegated into two classes: those who seek to top the bestseller lists and those who have literary aspirations.

Harris has sold a large number of books in the past. Sounds like he needs a little love from his peers to make him feel better about his career.

14 comments:

  1. Wow, that is a really strong denouncement of the Man Booker Prize! I admit that I don't always put a lot of faith into these awards or other must-read lists. However, I'm not sure the Booker Prize is evil. I agree that this may be sour grapes.

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  2. I guess the gulf between literary novelists and genre novelists is the same worldwide, as well as their battles with literary prizes. Over here, Stephen King has been just as vocal publically about the Pulitzer Prize, which he will never be nominated for or win either.

    The silent "rules" have always been the same in the writing business. The literary novelists win all the big prizes and most teach in universities to pay their bills. The genre novelists make big bucks with their novels and win no literary prizes. Weird system, but that's the way is has always been as long as I have been in the business (almost 20 years now).

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  3. I agree that he was probably caught on a bad day.
    I have to say that in the last few years the cult of the Booker prize has waned. It wasn't even televised this year ( though the winner was announced on the 10 o'clock news). Once it was the book prize that everyone had heard of, now there are others, notably the British Book Awards, which are televised, and there are categories to this award, some of which Robert Harris could win easily.

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  4. Why doesn't he speak out about something much more evil - the Oprah book club? Her show is what's "damaging to the industry."

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  5. Interesting. I've not been much impressed with the Booker. I love popular fiction, something entertaining, and find many of the Booker Prize choices a bit pretentious, but certainly not all of them. I'm sure Harris would have loved to have been recognized by the committee at some point.

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  6. I find myself agreeing with Harris' remarks. Rather than being sour grapes, I think he's caught on to the idea that there exists a tremendous gap to develop between "great literature" and the "good read". I don't find the Booker Prize winners to be particularly enjoyable as a rule. But for a particular market demographic, the award means something so they sell.

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  7. "Evil" is a probably a bit much, Lisa, but I'm generally put off by art awards because of the politics that go on behind the scenes. Things like giving Al Gore and Jimmy Carter Nobel Peace Prizes or awarding Michael Moore "documentaries" are particularly disgusting to me.

    Music awards are particularly meaningless to me, but the books ones haven't consistently impressed me either.

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  8. Laura, I suppose that each author has to make that choice for himself...eat and live well or be highly thought of by your poorer peers. Tough choice. :-)

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  9. I wonder if there are just too many awards these days, jpatsty, for any of them to have the prestige that they once had. Having that many chances at winning "novel of the year" surely dilutes the impact.

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  10. I hear you, Annie...maybe he's afraid of what Queen Oprah could do to him with all that power she has. The woman has superpowers. :-)

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  11. "Pretentious" is the perfect word to describe some of the awards committees, IMO, Jenclair. I read a lot, have pretty good reading comprehension, and I think I'm a fair judge of quality writing,and yet some of the prize winners make my head spin...

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  12. That's a good point, Jill. Without these awards presentations, serious literature would sell even less than it already does and many more titles would simply die a quiet death.

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  13. He sounds a little grouchy about it all. I don't think I'd call the Booker evil--I do think they want to award good 'literature', but of course that is very difficult to do really when the word means so many different things to different people. And I do think there are very good (as well as not so good) books in every genre. I do pay a little attention to these awards, but I also am curious about awards like the Agatha Award for mysteries, too. For me it's just another way find out about a potentially good book.

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  14. That's pretty much the only reason that I pay any attention to the various prize lists, Danielle. But it amazes me how often I'm disappointed in prize winners when I get around to them...internal politics skew the lists, IMO.

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