The Booker McConnell Prize was a belated arrival on the world lit scene. It was founded in 1969, sixty-six years after the first Prix Goncourt and fifty-two after the first Pulitzer. Booker McConnell, a U.K. food conglomerate, had a sideline interest in books. In the hopes that a prize might boost consumer interest, they ponied up the cash for the largest prize at the time. When The Guardian made the announcement, W.L. Webb (both The Guardian literary editor and the selection committee’s chairman) sent a telegram from Czechoslovakia in the throes of the Prague Spring: “Booker Prize is notable sign that Britain too is learning to value the writer and his work more hugely. With you soon Brezhnev willing.”
Since then, the Booker shortlist and the eventual winners have been decried for being too populist, too elitist, too imperialist, too predictable. The prize is announced on television each year, and each year, the closed-door politicking, arm-twisting, and neck-wringing leading up to the ceremony have been more indelible than most of the novels under consideration. Next year, the prize is expanding to consider any book published in English, dragging us all into the fracas.
Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel, Lost for Words, is a briskly readable satire on the annual circus. St. Aubyn has incorporated thinly veiled representations of past scandals, like Anthony Burgess demanding to know if his novel had won before he would commit to attending the event. The novel features a gallery of bumbling publishers, egomaniacal critics, emotionally-stunted authors. They are all angling for the Elysian Prize — the British literary world’s laurus nobilis, the evergreen plant associated with public validation — even if they don’t have much hope for literary immortality. In picking out the gossip from the freely invented, I found myself drawn further into the Booker’s long, ignoble history.
The first winner was P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, a Greene-influenced metafictional novel set during the Suez Crisis. The novel’s protagonist, Townrow, is hit on the head early in the novel. After being drawn into a web of international espionage, he has a difficult time grasping reality. “The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police,” the novel opens. “It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams.”
When Newby won, there was no televised ceremony. Newby received notification by mail. The book has fallen out of print, though Sam Jordison and other readers have suggested it’s an unjustly overlooked gem.
St. Aubyn is renowned for the Patrick Melrose books, a five-volume exploration of privilege and menace. In his new novel, we get a St. Aubyn avatar in Sam Black, a writer who has shelved his ambitious first novel to write a harrowing autobiographical novel, The Frozen Torrent, that is shortlisted for the prize. He hopes that success will vault him beyond mining his own personal trauma again and “win his freedom from the tyranny of pain-based art.”
The other hapless candidates on the Elysian Prize shortlist are wot u starin at, a work of slumsploitation set in squalid public estates; The Greasy Pole, a political novel promoted by the chairman for his personal advantage; All The World’s A Stage, a historical novel set on the Elizabethan stage; and The Palace Cookbook. The last book is written by an unassuming Indian aristocrat who is baffled when her modest collection of traditional Indian recipes is mistaken for a post-modern novel. That plot point is one of the weakest in Lost for Words. It’s a move that belongs more to 1996 — the year Alan Sokal “punked” the post-modern academic journal Social Text with a nonsense article — than 2013.
St. Aubyn relishes writing pastiches of faux-literary trash. There are parodies of sub-Fleming thrillers, “risque” urban-dialect writing, and Continental philosophy. Possibly the funniest writing in the novel are the excerpts of All the World’s A Stage:
Before William [Shakespeare] could respond to this amazing tale of murder most foul, strange, and unnatural, John [Webster] rose up in his chair, in a state of great excitation, and pointed through the window.
“All eyes! All eyes! My lord of Essex comes hard upon us with a great retinue of men. How finely caparisoned they are, and point device in their accoutrement.”
The Booker McConnell Prize of 1972 was awarded to John Berger’s G., a novel of ideas about an Italian-American living on an English farm and lusting after a governess. “All generalizations are opposed to sex,” the narrator says. “Every feature that makes her desirable asserts its contingency — here, here, here, here, here, here. That is the only poem to be written about sex — here, here, here, here — now.”
When given the floor at the Booker ceremony, Berger critiqued the crass publicity stunts surrounding the prize, and then predictably praised the selection committee’s taste and good judgment, before finally excoriating its corporate sponsor.
“Yet one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came,” Berger said. “Booker-McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.”
Literary prizes ought to offer the kind of validation that alleviates a writer’s anxiety. There’s evidence laurus nobilis only gives those fears and insecurities a wider ambit. Even after winning the Booker Prize, and having a long career of brisk sales, Newby confessed that he worried that only old women read his books.
St. Aubyn’s insight into the writer’s psyche are well-deployed in Lost for Words. The novelist-character Sam Black wonders if writing is only an “ingenious decoy, drawing attention away from his own decaying body towards a potentially immaculate body of work. He named this deflection the ‘Hephaestus complex,’ as if it had always been part of the annals of psychoanalysis.”
Another character, Sonny, is in London to pitch his tastelessly nostalgic novel about his family of Indian aristocrats. The novel is described as something like Downton Abbey in India — as a publisher-character suggests, it has “a wearisome emphasis on the insults dealt by modernity to the glory of the princely states, and without any hint of relief from his cloying self-regard.” He also is nephew to The Palace Cookbook author and has the second indignity of watching her absurd success from close proximity. Sonny’s grasping and unknowing talentlessness is a genuine fear stalking the writer’s psyche.
In 1981, John Banville published a public letter to the Booker foundation after being announced as a runner-up to the shortlist. “The five hard-pressed judges should forget about shortlists and secret conclaves and so on,” he wrote, “and instead forthwith award the prize to me.” Then, he claimed that he would spend the money on buying copies of all the novels on the longlist and donating them to libraries, ensuring wryly that they might be read, “surely a unique occurrence,” in his wording.
Salman Rushdie won that year for Midnight’s Children, which would go on to win the oddly-named Booker of Bookers in 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the prize, and the Best of the Booker, on the 40th anniversary of the prize.
When Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, he said in his acceptance speech, “It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.”
In Lost for Words, the Elysian Prize committee is chaired by Malcolm Craig, a recently-disgraced MP, who takes a swipe at the “Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth” while accepting the position. The rest of the committee includes Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend, a popular writer named Penny Feathers, and a blogger, Jo Cross, who is “fiercely loyal” to her blog subscribers. The panel is filled out by the requisite Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, and Tobias Benedict, a vacuous actor featured in a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot.
Malcolm opens the first meeting by talking about the social responsibility involved in awarding the prize. “It’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it,” he says. To which, the blogger adds, “no pseuds and no aristos.”
The Oxbridge professor provokes him by name-dropping Nabokov and Proust, as talented aristocrats, but she sabotages herself by sinking into pedantic diatribes on “the true nature of literature.”
St. Aubyn gives the members conventional flaws: they are easily flattered and easily wounded, and animated by an unfocused belligerence. The blogger says, “The vested interests are certainly not going to thank us. And all I can say is that if they want a fight, we’re ready for them.”
The satire in these passages goes broad and lifeless, and the execution is predictable. St. Aubyn, it goes without saying, is said to have nursed a grudge about not winning for any of the Melrose novels, and his rancor is unfulfilled and directionless when he takes aim at the committee.
These passages also have the air of wish-fulfillment, as if the author were indulging is his most self-serving judgments of panelists. They are incapable of searching critique and indifferent to books generally. By setting up such easy targets, St. Aubyn is dragging his net in the shallows.
In 2002, the website of the Man Booker Prize (renamed that year) announced Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as the winner. The chair of the Booker committee, Lisa Jardine, claimed that the book “would make you believe in God.”
“My suffering left me sad and gloomy,” the novel begins, prompting me to ask: what kind of suffering leaves one happy and exuberant? The question goes unanswered.
Unfortunately, the prize announcement was posted a full week before the televised ceremony, while William Hill plc and other bookmakers were still taking bets on the winner.
St. Aubyn points out in Lost for Words something worth remembering: even in the middle of the frenzy, while the judges are weighing “relevance” and “readability” of the nominees, the serious authors are finding refuge in the writing of sentences.
After being shortlisted, Sam Black is working out whether he should be excited, or how excited he should be, or what his responsibility to the non-shortlisted are. He thinks:
Hubris was bad, but insincere anti-hubris was no better. In the middle of the day, a word like “humility” would present itself, like a sunlit colonnade in all its elegance and simplicity, but by the middle of the night it was transformed into a sinister ruin, with a murderer concealed behind every column.
He compulsively writes down the line for use in a future book. It is enough, we hope, to start him on a sequence of dreams.
On September 13, Manhattan’s august Morgan Library launched Bookermania, a show dedicated to 45 years of the Man Booker Prize. For those curious about the story behind the headline-hogging award, and the company that this year’s winner Eleanor Catton has just joined, this jewel-box exhibit showcases the prize that ignited the careers of writers from V.S. Naipaul to D.B.C. Pierre, and helped shape the canon of postcolonial literature. A shallow shelf running around the wall displays first editions of prizewinning and shortlisted novels, from P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For in 1969 to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It’s an impressive collection, with more classics and fewer obscurities than the odds might suggest. According to curator Sheelagh Bevan, the display is designed to celebrate the physical book and the importance of cover design, while at the same time showing off what everyone comes to the Booker to find: intellectual battles, backstabbing, and bitchery.
The Morgan’s archive, drawn from its acquisition of literary agent Peter Straus’s vast collection, contains some 4,000 items. The selection on display — of correspondence, notebooks, annotated proofs, and newspaper clippings — testifies to the argumentative journey toward choosing each year’s winner, and demonstrates the outsize cultural impact the prize has had since its creation. Controversy has been built into the Booker since it began. The prize’s initial sponsor was Booker McConnell, described by The Guardian in 1968 as “an international company dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond.” The company had been booted out of the former British Guiana when the country declared independence, and established the prize in part to raise its profile and reputation in the U.K. This strategy backfired early, when the 1972 prize-winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to attack the company’s long and dirty trading history, stating that “the modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation,” and promising to donate half his winnings to the London arm of the Black Panthers.
However, the Booker organizers were savvy enough to realize that such public shaming could only draw attention to the prize. Its innovation of releasing a shortlist several weeks before the winner was announced was designed to stimulate both comment and commerce — in 1980, with two of its authors on the shortlist, Penguin was the first publisher to rush out paperback editions flagged in bright orange as nominees. The transparency of revealing the shortlist (and since 2001, the longlist) has made Booker-watching and Booker-bashing into British national sports, and some of its decisions seem designed to bait the press, such as including celebrities, like Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, on the judging panels. The latest outcry is over the new rules allowing U.S. entrants, which writers including Julian Barnes have warned will skew the results, thanks to British “cultural cringe” in the face of American blockbusters.
What makes Booker controversies more compelling than other instances of literary sour grapes is that the fiercest and most colorful criticism often comes from judges and board members, not just shunned novelists. In 2001, judge A.L. Kennedy complained that the award was based on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Unfortunately the notes from judges’ meetings are embargoed for 20 years, so the Morgan can’t reveal London’s current literary drug-dealers and bed-hoppers. On the flip side, there is also evidence here of judicial high-mindedness. In a letter from 2005, when his novel The Sea won the award, John Banville thanks judge John Sutherland for his “quintessentially English sense of fair play” — Sutherland had gone to bat for The Sea even though earlier that year, the two had publicly tangled over Banville’s demolition of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books.
Booker criticism fluctuates between charges of elitism and denunciations of populism. In 2011, the judges were attacked for looking for “readability,” and the next year, the shortlist looked far more experimental—although the prize went to the (relatively) readable Mantel. The prize guidelines call for a “full-length novel,” but what that means is up to the judges: this year, Colm Tóibín’s 104-page The Testament of Mary is the shortest work ever nominated. By operating no other categories, the Booker places particular pressure on the novel genre, and has long had an uneasy relationship with history and memoir. J.G. Ballard’s chance of winning in 1984 for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was torpedoed, ironically, for alleged factual inaccuracies, while Thomas Keneally, who had won for Schindler’s Ark two years, originally signed a non-fiction contract for the book.
Since the early ’70s, U.K. bookmakers have published odds on the winners, and as The Atlantic recently reported, Graham Sharpe, the head of Britain’s biggest bookie William Hill, is regularly consulted for his opinion on the winners’ chances. He had no clear favorite this year, and told the BBC that this was “one of the most competitive shortlists for years.” But now the fun is over for another year, fans of literary feuds and rivalries can get their fix at the Morgan — at least until the National Book Award shortlist comes out.
“Bookermania” is at the Morgan Library and Museum from September 13 to January 5, 2014.