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Published December 2008Become a subscriber
To place a bet on the Booker Prize, I had to leave the bright noise of Finchley Road and walk down lurid, carpeted stairs, past a row of old men whose faces were lit by flickering TV screens, and across to a perspex counter. A young woman with spiky pink hair stared at me impassively.
‘I’d like to place a bet on the Booker Prize.’
‘It’s a prize. For books.’
She chewed her gum, scanned the calendar, and flicked through the screens on her computer with a kind of dogged apathy. Not only had she never heard of the Booker Prize, she didn’t know where to start finding it on their system. I shifted from foot to foot, thinking that if I’d wanted to get rid of my money quickly I really should have bet on the horses. After she vaguely offered to call Head Office, I scribbled ‘Lloyd Jones Mister Pip’ on a scrap of paper and handed over five pounds.
How awkward. Yet literary culture often seems to produce moments like these, fusing art and money in ways that feel discordant. This is nowhere more striking than in the case of literary prizes. In his book The Economy of Prestige, academic James English suggests that literary prizes have a duplicity, or an ambiguity at their heart.1 On the one hand, prizes are spectacular stages, media events that draw authors and the public together as stars and fans. Prizes manufacture the excitement of the contest, the glory of winners and the shame of losers, providing a surge of adrenaline to the scene of literary production. In this sense, prizes are a function of our celebrity-obsessed society and a symptom of the sort of globalised mass consumerism in which particular items are pimped and sold in massive quantities. On the other hand, literary prizes endorse elitism. They declare themselves the consecrators of genius, ignoring the market-driven successes of bestsellers to honour works that display style and originality. Prizes reaffirm the possibility of critical judgement, the notion that some cultural products are simply better than others. Embodying these competing drives, prizes are thoroughly embedded in that ambivalence where prestige collides with popular appeal.
You don’t have to look far to find evidence of the conflicting values inherent in literary prizes, since they are magnets for both publicity and criticism. Storms were provoked by both the bestowal of the National Book Award Gold Medal on Oprah Winfrey and the (so far unsuccessful) campaign to secure the Nobel Prize for J. K. Rowling: two moments that combined popular figures with august institutions. Elite figures also struggle with this ambiguity. Doris Lessing recently called winning the Nobel Prize for Literature a ‘bloody disaster’ because the demands for interviews and photographs sapped her energy to write.2
Other authors have expressed similar reservations to Lessing’s. When John Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005, he had to grapple with the populist aspects of the prize, acting out the clashing logics of prestige and public appeal. Banville himself is a complex package of literary values. He writes dense, reflective novels such as The Sea, and casually drops words like ‘flocculent’ and ‘velutinous’ into descriptive paragraphs. As a contributor to the New York Review of Books, he famously called rival Ian McEwan’s Saturday ‘a dismayingly bad book’.3 However, Banville also writes crime fiction (admittedly, the most highbrow of the lowbrow genres) under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black.
When it came to responding to his award, Banville began by deliberately hitching his wagon to the star of prestige. In his acceptance speech, he declared that ‘it’s nice to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize.’ A rather arch report in The Guardian described his post-win demeanour:
In the ringside television interview he implied that this was a victory for high art over slick popularism, a point he underlined by behaving as if he had never before seen a camera crew. ‘Well,’ he sighed, when complimented on his prose, ‘one does try.’4
Banville went on to assert that his novel, The Sea, was more literary than ‘the normal kind of Booker book’. When the interviewer suggested that all Booker Prize winners were literary fiction, he replied:
‘Yeeees, the Booker winner will be a literary book. But I feel that over the past 15 years, there has been a steady move toward more populist work… There are plenty of other rewards for middle-brow fiction. There should be one decent prize for…’ he pauses, ‘…real books.’
The Guardian distances itself from Banville’s position, pointing out his lack of university education and comparing his assertion that he is an artist to the claims of a ‘third-rate pop artist’. Yet Banville’s approach to the Booker is more nuanced than this caricatured elitist posturing. He is alive to the commercial implications of the prize, telling The Guardian he hoped the award would make publishers realise that ‘literary fiction can make money. That’s very important in this image-obsessed age.’ Some months later, in an interview for the blog The Elegant Variation, Banville teased out some of the tensions inherent in the prize ceremony. ‘The whole social side of the Booker Prize is vulgar but we’re not angels – why shouldn’t we be pushed into vulgarity occasionally? It’s good for us.’ And he went on, ‘You discover this childish side of yourself that wants to win.’5
Banville’s awkward zigzagging on the value of the Booker recalls another notorious clash of literary values, Jonathan Franzen’s dismissive comments about Oprah’s Book Club after his novel The Corrections was selected for the show in 2001. In this almost folkloric controversy, Franzen called most of Winfrey’s picks ‘schmaltzy and one-dimensional’ (whereas he felt he was ‘solidly in the high art tradition’), and assessed the value of her endorsement as getting his book ‘into Walmart and places like that’.6 Franzen’s idea of prestige precluded Winfrey’s endorsement, which he saw as belonging to an entertainment industry that degrades literature by treating it as a commodity. He revived the classic hierarchy of high and low art. This hierarchy is galvanised in literary prize culture: people uphold it and deny it, spinning in perpetual motion around the idea of value.
As the story of Franzen and Oprah’s Book Club suggests, awkwardness can flare into scandal. It is no coincidence that the most visible prizes attract the most controversy, and that these controversies tend to spotlight the clash of elite literary values with those from ‘outside’ – whether politics, personal liaisons, or, most reliably, commerce.
The Booker Prize is probably the most scandalous literary prize in history. Its notoriety began in 1971, when it was in its infancy; a brash new award offering a large lump of cash but with no credibility and no profile. The judging panel for that year included Malcolm Muggeridge, or ‘St Muggs’, a journalist and television personality known for his conservative religious views. Only a few weeks into the judging, Muggeridge withdrew from the panel. In a letter to prize administrators, he described himself as ‘nauseated and appalled’ by the novels, which were ‘mere pornography’. The press got hold of the letter and the result was sensational, extended media coverage of the prize for the first time. The air of scandal sprang from two aspects of the story: were hoity-toity novels really just smut, or was the judge not sophisticated enough to recognise good literature? These innuendoes sold newspapers, and the coverage meant that the winner that year, V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, sold many thousands of copies. Muggeridge paved the way for a parade of other Booker controversies. Just a year later, John Berger infamously used his acceptance speech to denounce the sponsors, Booker McConnell, as colonialists and announce the donation of half his prize money to the (defunct at the time) Black Panthers. In 1980, media interest coalesced around the undignified feuding between shortlisted authors William Golding and Anthony Burgess: Burgess allegedly refused to attend the ceremony unless he was told in advance that he had won. He didn’t win, and he didn’t attend.
Prizes are also lightning rods for scandal in Australia. The Miles Franklin has been dogged by contention over the threshold requirement for the text to portray ‘Australian life’. In 1979, Christopher Koch complained when his novel The Year of Living Dangerously was ruled ineligible because of its largely Indonesian setting. Even more notoriously, in 1994 the judges disqualified Frank Moorhouse’s critically acclaimed Grand Days because of its European orientation. Ironically, judges may have been trying to adopt a broader definition of Australianness when they offered the 1995 award to Helen Demidenko for her pseudo-autobiographical novel about Ukrainian war criminals, The Hand That Signed the Paper. The subsequent revelation of Demidenko/Darville/Dale’s hoax generated more scandal than the Miles Franklin has experienced before or since.
It is not just the books and the authors that spark controversy. Other players can also bring into focus the collision of prestige and populism. While administrators generally keep a low public profile, a recent occasion when they stepped into the spotlight was the Miles Franklin Award of 2004. The Trust, which administers the award, proposed a new charter that included restrictions on what judges could say to the media, the power to dismiss judges at any time, and a halving of judges’ terms of office. Three of the five judges for the Miles Franklin, Mark Rubbo, David Marr and Kerryn Goldsworthy, resigned. They felt the new charter interfered too drastically with their role as the judges. The stoush revealed the key role of administrators as cultural intermediaries, who shape the character of a prize and exert a strong, though usually hidden, influence on the field of literature. This moment of scandal is another manifestation of the clash between literary values – here represented by the judges’ autonomy on the one hand, and more worldly concerns of the administrators on the other.
As more and more literary figures are aware, scandals are far from undesirable. The energy of controversy builds public recognition, generating commercial and literary success for the prize and all those associated with it. A historical glimpse of the evolution of prizes shows how important it is to secure a public profile. The first cultural prizes were probably the ancient Greek drama and art competitions, but literary awards as we know them are fairly recent. They came to prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the establishment of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901 and the Prix Goncourt in 1903. Book prizes remained relatively scarce until the 1940s; but since the second half of the twentieth century, the number of literary prizes has grown dramatically. Today, there are literally thousands of national and international awards for literature. An author who writes a novel sitting at her desk in Melbourne could be eligible in course for the Age Book of the Year, the Victorian, NSW and Queenland Premier’s Awards, the Melbourne Prize, the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the ALS Gold Medal, the Miles Franklin, The Australian/VogelAward, the Commonwealth Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award among a host of others.
But not all prizes are created equal. Not all prizes are equally winnable, and not all prizes bestow equal glory on their winners. Just as authors compete with one another for a prize, so literary awards compete with one another for recognition and impact. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu claims that the ‘fundamental stake’ in all literary struggles is ‘the monopoly of literary legitimacy’ which includes ‘the monopoly of the power to consecrate producers or products’.7 Literary prizes overtly claim the power to consecrate authors and books, and the competition between prizes is evidence of their desire to monopolise this power. James English contends that prize culture is undergirded by a single-winner axiom, according to which each prize strives to be the prize that matters, the ultimate consecrator of literary value. We can see this logic at work in a letter from publisher Tom Maschler to Booker McConnell in 1968, prior to the founding of the Booker Prize. Maschler writes:
I am on a sub-committee of the Publishers Association, and we are planning to institute a major literary award – something at least as significant as the National Book Award in the U.S., and hopefully, something that is going to have some of the impact of the Goncourt. I don’t think it will be difficult to make it by far the most important literary award in this country, because there isn’t a serious rival.
Maschler’s note shows not only that he is ambitiously aiming to set up the definitive British literary prize; it also shows his awareness of the finely indexed hierarchy of literary awards that operates nationally and internationally. This hierarchy is developed by a particular logic of imitation and proliferation that regulates the development of new prizes. New prizes usually begin by trying to differentiate themselves from their competition. Each prize creates new possibilities for other prizes, since newcomers can differentiate themselves along different axes including geography, gender, genre and range.
It is probably easiest to see how this works by imagining a kind of family tree. At the top is the Nobel Prize, the oldest and richest of them all. The Nobel is different to most other prizes because it has a global imperative – the literature can be written in any language – and because it honours a career, not a particular book. The forerunner of the most popular literary award type, the ‘book of the year’ award, is the French Prix Goncourt. The Goncourt is well known both for its intellectual prestige and for the frenzy of media attention it reliably provokes. Almost immediately after the establishment of the Goncourt, the Prix Femina was created as a backlash against the allegedly male-dominated Goncourt: all the judges for the Prix Femina are female, although winners can be men or women.
When the Booker Prize was established in 1968, organisers consciously sought to create a ‘British Prix Goncourt’, describing their prize this way in press releases. In 1971, the Whitbread Prize was created as a direct competitor of the Booker, but organisers emphasised that the Whitbread would go to popular, readable books. In 1996, the Orange Prize was established to correct the perceived bias towards male authors evident in the Booker canon: it recognises the best novel written by a woman in a given year. Meanwhile, in 1992 the Russian Booker Prize was inaugurated, which also had the Booker Company as its main sponsor. These evolutions create a hierarchy of recognition and reputation. For example, it is a point of pride for Booker Prize administrators that four winners have gone on to win The Nobel Prize. The hierarchy can also cause prizes to change: since the rise of the Orange Prize, the Booker has hired a PR firm, upped its prize money, revamped its website, and recently announced a ‘Best of the Booker’ award to be voted on by the public. Booker organisers also show an awareness of the value of their scandalous history, including a potted summary of Booker controversies on their official website.8
In Australia, the picture is similar. As with the United Kingdom, the most authoritative prize in Australia is the Nobel, which we have won with Patrick White, in 1973, and with ‘our’ J. M. Coetzee, who won in 2003 after moving to Australia in 2002. That said, the Nobel is a bit like SBS: we all know it’s worthy, but how many people tune in? The Booker Prize gets a large amount of press coverage here, and Australian authors who are shortlisted or win are held in high regard. The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is also seen as prestigious, while at the national level, the Miles Franklin is our most highly respected prize. Kevin Rudd’s recently inaugrated Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Fiction has attempted to come in at a position in the hierarchy above the Miles Franklin. This position is available because the Miles Franklin is a limited award. The new award honours works by Australian writers on any subject; inaugural winner Steven Conte’s novel, The Zookeeper’s War, is set in Berlin. Even more ambitiously, the new Western Australian Premier’s Australia-Asia Literary Award will honour a work by an Australian or Asian resident, or set in Australia or Asia. Beneath these awards, Australia has a multiplicity of more tightly framed awards, from the Aurealis Awards for science fiction and fantasy to the Children’s Book Awards. The process of differentiation can result in some extremely narrow awards, which may nevertheless attract large numbers of entries. An example is the Davitt Awards, which honour the best works of crime written by Australian women in a given year.
The proliferation of prizes can lead to charges of discrimination, like those levelled against the Orange Prize for its exclusion of works by male authors. Perhaps contrarily, prizes also tend to double up; the Orange Prize often goes to works already recognised on the shortlists of other prizes, as when Zadie Smith won in 2006 for her Booker-shortlisted novel, On Beauty. As English explains, prizes drift towards the middle ground as they search for greater symbolic rewards: each prize wants to be associated with the most prestigious authors. Peter Carey, for example, has won the Booker Prize twice, the Miles Franklin three times, The Age Book of the Year three times, The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize twice, the NSW Premier’s Award twice, along with at least six other prizes. This drift means there are always opportunities for new prizes that recognise sidelined authors. So, prize culture is organised by a highly productive logic of proliferation that means that the market for prizes is never saturated. Instead, more and more positions are created. Structurally, there can never be too many prizes in the literary field. Certainly, for authors and publishers, the more prizes the better. As Louise Adler, CEO and publisher of Melbourne University Press, proclaimed recently, ‘May a thousand prizes bloom.’9
Many more than a thousand prizes are blooming in Australia and worldwide, and their multiplication raises the question of whether the impact of each prize can be sustained. In the face of common sense, the answer appears to be yes. Certainly, different prizes have different spheres of influence. Many of the smaller prizes create at best a brief fillip in the winner’s sales. The ones at the top of the hierarchy, though, wield significant power, and the influence of the Booker, the Pulitzer and the Nobel is not diminished but enhanced by the surrounding field of prizes. Anne Enright’s novel, The Gathering, had sold 2,500 copies before winning the Booker Prize in 2007, and its current sales total stands at over 250,000 copies. Similarly, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, which won (among other prizes) the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award, ALS Gold Medal, and Victorian Premier’s Award, has sold around 30,000 copies, far more than the 2000 to 5000 copies typical for an Australian literary novel.
Beyond the impact on sales, even small prizes can act as symbolic currency in the literary field. A prize is always at least a line on a CV or information sheet that can lead to a government grant, a university position, a listing on a school syllabus or a spot at a writers festival, all of which enhance the status of authors and publishers. A prize for an unpublished manuscript can launch a writer’s career, bringing her to the attention of agents and publishers. Prizes make money and make reputations, to varying degrees – but their impact can be even wider than that. Because they are staged media events, prizes draw attention to the whole field of literature, making it visible and newsworthy, drawing people to bookshops and book clubs.
However, the impact of prizes wasn’t always acknowledged. In its early days, there was scepticism from the commercial side of the industry about the value of the Booker Prize. Ian Parsons of Chatto and Windus wrote to prize organisers in 1970:
Thank you for your letter of September 2, with the gloomy news that we owe you 80 pounds for not having been awarded the Booker Prize 1970. Enclosed is our cheque, which I fear will not enhance the vast profits of Booker Brothers Ltd. by quite the same percentage as it will reduce our more modest margin. Ah well…I suppose it’s all in a good cause, though I sometimes wonder whose. Neither of the books that has won the Prize so far seems to have rocketed its author to fame and fortune, and as for the also-rans…
A similar letter was received from W. E. Butcher of Angus and Robertson, who wrote ‘This really wasn’t worth all the time and money we spent and it makes us wonder if we should submit any more books.’ In hindsight, these letters seem quite amazing. In the few decades of its existence, the Booker has developed an enormous public profile and a canon of successful winners, and is recognised by the publishing industry as a tremendous sales-boosting mechanism. Across the field of literary production, naivety about prizes and their potential has been replaced by a savvy hard-nosed knowledge of their value.
Even so, a prize does not guarantee great sales: John Banville’s The Sea sold less well than other Booker winners of recent years. In many cases, too, the effect on sales is a short-term one: a number of earlier recipients of the Miles Franklin Award are currently out of print. But we might ask whether prizes, especially those that honour the best book of a year, should be a guarantee of longevity? Do they help to create a new canon?
One thing is certain. The short-term and long-term impacts of prizes are absolutely dependent on the media. Because of this, prize organisers deliberately develop strong ties with media organisations. The inclusion of the shortlist for the Booker Prize was, as committee minutes record, a deliberate attempt ‘to stimulate interest and speculation’, and from the very beginning, the organisers aimed at television coverage. This plan bore fruit in 1981, when the announcement ceremony became a prime time feature program on BBC 2. The show, which aired from 7:25 to 7:50, included interviews and critical views from panellists and culminated in the live transmission of the announcement of the winner. To accommodate the television format, the organisers increased the showmanship of the prize, orchestrated the arrival of all the judges together, and delicately negotiated the competing deadlines and requirements of print journalists.
A speech from Sir Michael H. Caine, the chairman of Booker McConnell, at the 1981 ceremony apologised for the disruptive presence of the television cameras but affirmed their key role in promoting the prize:
I hope that the live broadcast of tonight’s announcement by the BBC was a bearable interruption. Although it resulted in the postponement of the fish course, it added to the importance of the evening and, I hope, to your enjoyment.
Booker Prize organisers also deliberately cultivated the interest of literary editors from major newspapers. Many of the judges of the prize have been literary editors, including the chairman of the first panel in 1968, Bill Webb from The Guardian. In 1969, publicity plans for the prize included a ‘small drinks party with literary editors and gossip columnists from main papers’. The inclusion of ‘gossip columnists’ in this plan speaks to the prize’s popular, as well as highbrow, aspirations. The invitation subsequently issued invited editors and columnists to ‘a small, private party…in order to discuss plans for the Prize, in this its second year, and to seek your advice and help in the handling of it.’ The flattering, humble wording seems designed to encourage editors to feel a sense of ownership and investment in the prize. The status of prizes is at the mercy of the media; the media, symbiotically, is always hungry for dramatic stories.
The media is a player in the literary prize, but only one player. Each award comprises its own mini-field, enlivened by internal struggles and alliances among a host of agents. Beyond journalists, each prize is constituted by the highly visible figures of the author and the judges, as well as the less visible world of administrators, publishers, PR companies, booksellers, bookmakers and more. Often such a field is highly insular and interconnected: people in different positions are likely to know each other, and the same person might occupy a variety of positions over time. We should probably be asking more often whether people involved with prizes have conflicts of interest.
Each person involved in a prize has their own disposition that affects their involvement with the prize. As an example, we can think of Graham Greene, who refused to enter his novel Travels With My Aunt in the Booker Prize because he thought it would demean his work. Rather than talk about individual persons’ orientations, though, we can get a better picture by looking at some of the collective positions that make up a prize: particularly those of sponsors and judges.
Sponsors provide one of the most attention-grabbing aspects of a prize: the purse. Most high-profile awards splash the cash liberally; the Booker is valued at £50,000, the Miles Franklin at A$42,000 and the Nobel at 10 million Swedish krona (about A$1.76 million). Such large prizes tend to attract media attention and guarantee the seriousness of the award. However, in some cases cash is not necessary. The Prix Goncourt awards its winners a munificent 10 euro cheque. Perversely enough, that pittance seems to make the Goncourt more popular and influential with the French, perhaps because it symbolises literary independence.
Prior to the twentieth century, most prizes were sponsored by either the state or the academy. In the contemporary scene, prizes increasingly have corporate sponsors. The Orange Prize’s full title is the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. The Whitbread Prize was sponsored by a hospitality company: it recently, and riskily, changed its name to the Costa Book of the Year when Whitbread’s subsidiary, Costa Coffee, took over the sponsorship. The prize I’ve been colloquially referring to as the Booker is really the Man Booker Prize – when the Man Group assumed sponsorship of the award in 2002 they maintained a reference to Booker McConnell in the new name, a sign of how thoroughly the prize’s identity is bound up with its original sponsor. They kept the name Booker when they created the new Man Booker International Prize, but dropped it for the Man Asia Literary Prize.
In Australia, we have The Australian/Vogel Award for an unpublished first manuscript: a collaboration between a newspaper and a health foods company. The effect of sponsorship, particularly when naming rights are attached, can be to move the prize towards the market, to make it more openly commercial. At the same time, the sponsor is imbued with symbolic capital: an association with the arts enhances a company’s reputation and community goodwill.
Bourdieu goes further and suggests that sponsorship allows companies ‘to conceal certain kinds of actions’. This is borne out in the history of the Booker McConnell company, which had a colonial past as sugar plantation owners in the Caribbean using slave labour. In the 1960s Booker McConnell moved its headquarters to London following independence in Guyana, and established a subsidiary, Booker Books, to purchase the lucrative copyrights of popular authors such as Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie. The sponsorship of the Booker Prize affirmed the company’s presence in the United Kingdom and drew attention to their cultural production, rather than their sugar plantations. In this way the sponsorship refashioned the company’s reputation. The importance of gaining symbolic capital through sponsorship is evident in the fact that the Booker Prize is awarded not to works of popular fiction, like those that Booker Books handled, but for literary fiction, which has greater prestige.
A slightly different kind of whitewashing took place in the case of the Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel established the prize in his will to atone for the harm he felt he had done by inventing dynamite. In this case, the establishment of a cultural prize helped to recuperate the reputation of a commercial individual, reinventing him as a humanitarian. With the passing of time, fewer and fewer people are aware of the commercial connections of the Nobel, which have been eclipsed by its prestige. However, sponsorship cannot always be simply categorised as a PR exercise; genuine community-mindedness is often involved. We might ask, for example, why Vogel would sponsor an award for an unpublished manuscript? Perhaps altruism is the answer. As in so many aspects of the literary prize, commercial and cultural logics are mixed.
If the sponsor of a prize helps to ensure it has a connection to the world of commerce, the judging panel is usually the guarantee of autonomous, elite, literary values. The prestige of the prize depends on the prestige of judges. Of course, there are nuances to this general rule: for example, the judges of the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy, are effectively anonymous. In practice, if a prize wants prestigious judges this generally means drawing them from a small pool. Many of the judges of the Booker Prize have themselves won other prizes, such as Antonia Fraser who won the James Tait Black, John Fowles the W. H. Smith, and John Gross the Duff George Award. The academic Sharon Norris has shown that most judges of the Booker Prize have an Oxbridge background, which of course has class implications.11
The importance of the judging panel in ensuring the prestige of a cultural prize is thrown into sharp relief by debates over the inclusion of non-expert, ‘man-in-the-street’ or celebrity judges. Despite ongoing discussions, the Booker Prize has tended not to include a celebrity judge on the panel, but to draw on elite cultural figures including critics and academics. In contrast, the Whitbread and Orange Prizes do include celebrity judges: in one famous instance, judge Jerry Hall received a great deal of media coverage as she arrived at the Whitbread ceremony with a new partner. The Orange Prize has been judged by rocker Suzanne Vega, model Sophie Dahl, and for a brief period this year, 22-year-old singer Lily Allen. Maggie Gee of the Royal Society for Literature suggested that Allen would be a ‘fine choice’ provided she could read ‘whole books’: perhaps revealing something of a turf war between elite and popular judges.12
The judges selected to confer an award speak volumes about the prize’s intended media profile: elite, academic judges focus attention on the prestige of the prize, celebrity judges produce large splashes of less-focused media coverage, and new awards often try to cover all the bases. The judges of the Australia-Asia Literary Award include literary critic Peter Craven, author Kamila Shamsie and author, journalist and comedian Nury Vittachi, who has blogged humourosly about his judging experience. The judges for the new Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Australia also encompass a range of positions. People such as John Doyle and Margaret Throsby, described by the award’s website as ‘recognised cultural figures’, possess aspects of celebrity through their media profiles in radio and television, but are associated with ‘quality’ media (the ABC) and are respected specifically for their intellect. By anointing debut authors Steven Conte and Philip Jones ahead of more canonical writers such as Germaine Greer, Clive James, Tom Keneally and David Malouf, these judges showed impressive literary confidence.The award may have lost some media coverage by passing over big names, but it has secured an opportunity to build prestige by recognising authors at the beginning of potentially illustrious careers.
Judging has to be surrounded by an aura of credibility, and judges generally approach their work in seriousness and in good faith. Despite this, the process can often feel demeaning to those involved. John Fowles, the author of successful and respected novels like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, found judging the 1971 Booker Prize a bitter experience, as he complained to the prize’s organisers:
We had already, the previous week, started horse-trading: if you’ll be nice to my A, I’ll be nice to your B, that kind of thing – and the reverse. If I had ‘stopped’ Naipaul, I knew I’d have at least two votes adamantly against my two horses – Richler and Lessing. That would have let in the Elizabeth Taylor.
Fowles’s description expresses unusually explicit disenchantment with the way prizes are organised; a frustrated recognition that petty politics interfere with genuine assessments of literary worth.
With Fowles’s reference to horse-trading, we come back to the awkwardness of the comparison between literary prizes and sporting competitions, and the strange idea of betting on authors. Betting on the Booker has been a feature of the prize since 1976, and financial speculation is fostered by the release of the shortlist and, since 2001, the longlist. This is a trend across the field of prizes; more and more awards are releasing longlists to encourage debate and build anticipation. Betting makes a good media story and characterises journalists’ account of each year’s Booker Prize, and often the Nobel as well. But it’s still an uncomfortable fit with literary culture, as showcased in an interview with Ron Pollard of Ladbroke’s in 1981, the first year of BBC 2’s coverage of the prize ceremony. The bewilderment of literary critic Robert Kee, who conducted the interview, is palpable. He asks if much money has been placed:
Pollard: Well there’s been something in the order of about £5,000, which in our terms, of course, is very small. But it’s very exciting, it’s been great fun.
Kee: But if I’d wanted to put any money on I could have gone into any Ladbroke’s booking shop, or any booking, betting shop…
Pollard: Any of the 1,164 in the country would have taken your bet.
Kee: Just as if it was on the two-thirty or something?
Pollard: That’s right. You could have had a double as well if you’d wanted to.
Kee: What? How do you mean a double?
Pollard: You could have had a double, a horse in the two-thirty and the author.
Pollard’s playful spruiking of his betting services is markedly at odds with Kee’s confusion, his struggle to grasp the concept of betting on an author.
Success in the literary field today marries the seeming contradictions of money and art. Increasingly, the most triumphant books sell in large quantities and gain critical acclaim. This does not mean the old hierarchy that separates high art from low art is irrelevant. The forces of prestige and popularity still pull in opposite directions in the literary field. They define the difference between, say, David Malouf and Bryce Courtenay, poetry and fantasy, Gleebooks and Kmart. Certainly, this opposition holds at the rhetorical level. Most literary journalism relies heavily on the high art–low art dichotomy: just think of Harold Bloom’s scathing review of the Harry Potter novels, which asked whether 35 million book buyers could ever be right.13 So many media events are animated by the clash between the elite and the masses.
But to understand how the literary economy really works, we need to complicate the basic model that pits elite culture against commerce. In practice, the forces of prestige and popular appeal often work together, and this is most spectacularly evident in the case of literary prizes. The media reports of scandals that prizes generate not only have the effect of increasing sales, they also reinforce the status of prizes by building their level of public recognition. By looking at the hierarchy of prizes, and thinking about the way they start, the changes they make, the way they jostle for position, it becomes clear that the prizes that are most successful are the ones that best combine public profile and literary credibility, visibility and legitimacy. And although each prize is managed differently, their internal structures all bring into contact a range of actors with different agendas that compete or assist one another in an ongoing interplay between commercial and artistic values. Each prize is a site where agents can convert different kinds of capital: sponsors swap cash for goodwill, winners can translate the glory of the prize into increased sales or career opportunities, and ordinary readers can purchase some of the prize’s aura by buying the winning book.
Literary prizes mix together an intricate swirl of personalities, sensation, nationalism, cash, showbiz and art. They perform a crucial role by mediating between the public and a whole range of literary figures; like the gold stickers on wine bottles, they help consumers choose, they guarantee a certain quality of experience. My own recreational reading is in thrall to the shortlists of the Miles Franklin, the Booker and the National Book Awards, and each year this introduces me to engaging works by authors I haven’t encountered before, as well as giving me the opportunity to become enraged about who was left off, or marvel at what was let in. No matter how they multiply, prizes still have the power to spark debate as they perform an alchemy that fuses economic and symbolic capital.
1 James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005).
2 Andrew Hough, ‘‘‘Nobel win was a bloody disaster”: Lessing tells how winning award stopped her writing’, The Independent, 12 May 2008. From http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/nobel-prize-was-a-bloody-disaster-lessing-tells-how-winning-award-stopped-her-writing-826246.html
3 John Banville, ‘A Day in the Life’, New York Review of Books, 52(9), 26 May 2005.
4 Emma Brockes, ‘14th time lucky’, The Guardian, 12 October 2005. From http://books.guardian.co.uk/bookerprize2005/story/0,1590052,00.html
5 ‘The John Banville Interview’, The Elegant Variation, 25 September 2005.From http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/the_john_banville_interview/index.html
6 Judy Stoffman and Lana Slezic, ‘Tale of prickly family a hit, but writer won’t be on show’, Toronto Star, 26 October 2001, pA02; Jeff Baker, ‘Oprah’s stamp of approval rubs writer in conflicted ways’, The Oregonian, 12 October 2001, Arts and Living, p5.
7 Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production. (Irvington, NY: Columbia UP, 1993. p. 42.
8 ‘Hitting the Headlines’. From the Man Booker Prize website.http://www.themanbookerprize.com/perspective/articles/1017
9 Louise Adler, ‘Fine lines: Why book prizes are worth it’, Sunday Age, 20 April 2008, p.A19.
10 Sharon Norris, ‘They’re Not Your Average Readers’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 6 October 2006, p18.
11 Lucy Cockcroft, ‘Lily Allen named as judge for Orange Prize’, Telegraph.co.uk. 12 December 2007. From http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1572256/Lily-Allen-named-as-judge-for-the-Orange-Prize.html
13 Harold Bloom, ‘Can 35 million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.’ Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2000, pA26.
I am grateful for the opportunity in 2007 to work with the Booker Prize Special Collection at Oxford Brookes University, the source for the memoranda, letters and minutes quoted in this article.