The Man Booker Prize is arguably the greatest award for English fiction and has been surrounded by scandal for fifty years. Given such controversy, what can we learn from its past, and what can we expect of the prize's future?
This year, the Man Booker Prize saw its fiftieth iteration, granting literary prestige to the first ever Northern Irish winner, Anna Burns for her novel “Milkman”. Since its inception in 1968, the Booker Prize has been a focal point of British culture and more widely of the literary world. After half a century of competition and controversy, the prize continues to polarise. However, the accolade itself raises wider-reaching questions about the exclusivity of literary fiction, the inaccessibility of such novels, and the perception of academic literature as a whole.
In 1968, Tom Maschler established a literary prize worth £5,000, gaining the sponsorship of Booker McConnell Ltd, a food wholesale business. Maschler saw the British reception of literature as something to be improved and sought to “stimulate interest in serious fiction” with what became the “Booker-McConnell Prize”. Since then, the prize has become something of a cornerstone of British culture - an annual process of selecting the best English book published in the UK which many follow religiously. In 2014, the Booker Prize opened its doors to all authorial nationalities, which has, in part, led to its firm establishment as the global leader of literary awards, and the investment of Man Group has brought the prize into the 21st Century.
The Booker Prize, however, has historically been about so much more than the fiction it rewards. As title of the BBC Four documentary “Barneys, Books and Bust-Ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize” suggests, the prize has had its fair share of literary spats and rivalries over the years: from Philip Larkin as a judge threatening to jump from a window to Malcolm Muggeridge's denouncement of the fiction as, by his standards, “pornographic” in content. This embedded culture of scandal, secrecy, and suspense has seated the prize within the frame of journalistic focus, persuading sponsors to maintain their affiliation by the famous logic of ‘there's no such thing as bad publicity’.
By 1980, the prize had won public renown and become a legitimate token for literary merit. Nonetheless, the 1980 shortlist provided a rivalry which has, in many ways, become definitive of the prize's problematic objectives. The clear frontrunners in contention were William Golding's “Rites of Passage” and Anthony Burgess' “Earthly Powers”. The former represented a distinctly literary style, the latter a more accessible register. The discord between a novel written for academics and one aimed at a more general readership demonstrated the undercurrent of what some might call ‘intellectual snobbery’ beneath the Booker Prize.
The 1985 Chairman of the judges, Norman St John-Stevas, asserted at the award ceremony that the prize "is not for being 'top of the pops', it is not for providing a riveting yarn or an easy read... it is for a serious contribution to contemporary English fiction". This seems to articulate the prize's exclusivity by design - a decided preference for fiction that challenges, as opposed to fiction which enjoys the apparently pedestrian hallmark of commercial success. It is easy to deconstruct the search for a “serious contribution”, and thus to see the prize as an esoteric exercise which disregards the statistically significant proportion of readers who are not scouring the shelves of Waterstones for a demanding read.
However, the renown and perceived significance of the prize is a shining example of literature's power to incite debate, provoke opinion, and define our culture. The periphery baggage of scandal can be excused by the Booker Prize's bringing literature into the mainstream media - its unique success in opening the world of passionate academic discussion to a general audience. Elitist and flawed as it may be, the Man Booker prize will continue to appal, excite, and divide generations to come.
Perhaps, much like some of its winning entries, the prize is more symbolic than it is veracious. Perhaps, in a world full of political dogma and rife with assertion, the strength of the Booker Prize lies in its intrinsic ambiguities, contradictions, and bold artistic claims. To quote Margaret Atwood in her Man Booker acceptance speech, "this is a prize about books and reading, and writers and writing; it's not about one book".
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