The Man Booker Prize: Are Literary Awards Still Culturally Relevant?

20/12/2010 17:40 | Updated 22 May 2015

The judges of the Man Booker prize threw us (and the bookies) a curve ball on Tuesday night when they announced Howard Jacobson as this year's winner. Not only is the author, at the age of 68, the second oldest to ever receive the award, it was a comic novel - The Finkler Question - that secured his victory.

Few saw this verdict coming. Certainly not the literary elite who appeared to know something we didn't last week when too many punters placed bets on Tom McCarthy's novel C to take top honours - gambling chain Ladbrokes even called time on the fluttering, fearing something was afoot. Was it rigged? A leaked foregone conclusion that was nothing more than a stitch up?

The situation certainly had shades of the 2002 awards when Yann Martel was announced the winner on the Man Booker website a week before the judges were scheduled to make their final choice - they blamed it on a computer glitch, but Martel went on to win the prize for The Life of Pi just the same.

The quasi gambling scandal only added fuel to my cynical fire. The award, after all, is somewhat arbitrarily chosen by a handful of industry insiders and literary figures. Who's to know what goes on behind the scenes? Lobbying from the big publishing houses, perhaps? It doesn't take much to stretch my imagination to cash-filled envelopes passing beneath tables and bookish power players engaging in their own version of hardball.

No doubt, these daydreams are a fiction of my own making, but they're easy assumptions to fall upon when money and talent collide. The Booker gong is worth more than the £50,000 lavished on the author - every winning book experiences a sustained increase in sales and a celebrity status of a certain type for its author. It's a no brainer to guess that publishers, particularly in this cash-strapped 'the novel is a dying art' market, must crave this accolade for one of their books and authors. It's the literary Holy Grail.

But, as the old adage goes, just because you want, doesn't mean you're going to get. And this year the judges have done themselves (and their integrity) proud by proving just that. Frances Wilson, a member of the 2010 panel, wrote in The Daily Telegraph yesterday that Elizabeth Donoghue's shortlisted novel Room wasn't formally submitted for consideration by her publisher, but was added to the list when it was recommended to a member of the committee at a party. The most astounding evidence, however, came with the announcement of the actual winner.

I had also drawn a line through The Finkler Question the minute it hit the shortlist. From the synopsis, the story didn't seem angsty enough. It's not set in the past or a foreign, enigmatic land or in the middle of the ocean. But, its most obvious Achilles heel was that it was funny (albeit bittersweet). In short, it wasn't a 'Booker' book - whatever that means now.

The very fact that Jacobson and this novel were chosen from this year's awe-worthy shortlist warms the cockles of my heart. In its own way, it proves that the literary establishment are willing to switch gears and to keep us guessing. With this choice, it's baby stepping its way into the modern day by honouring a different type of book.

So, I'm buoyed by the fact that the prize's reputation remains unsullied, but I'm mostly just pleased for Jacobson and his stereotype-shattering win. It's choices like this that will keep the novel alive and ensure that prizes, such as the Man Booker, remain culturally relevant. Kindles and iPads are doing their part. Digital books - such as last year's Man Booker winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall app (the first Booker recipient to go digital, despite it's length) - are crucial. It is essential, however, that we trust in the prize and are engaged with the book. And with The Finkler Question added to our must-read lists, it sounds like we're all onto a winner.

By: Kate McAuley


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