The first cycle of the newly evolved Man Booker International Prize takes place this spring.
In a review of D.J. Taylor's impressive survey of a century of British literary life, The Prose Factory, the distinguished critic Stefan Collini briefly addressed the role of prizes in shaping the reading tastes of the public. He's not a huge fan of prizes: ‘They are artificially contrived 'races' which can have only one 'winner' because that’s what generates the coverage necessary to increase the profits of the book trade.’ Well, he's entitled to his opinion even if he dismisses the fact that the Man Booker, for example, brings quality fiction to a huge reading public. Collini went on to suggest: ‘If we really thought they [prizes] were serious exercises in discriminating judgement, we would 1) compose the juries of people with some claim to be good at that activity, 2) ask them to publish an argued case for the merits or demerits of the books they have read, and 3) resist the silly idea that one single book is 'better' than all the others.’ If the professor looked at most serious prize juries, especially the Man Booker, he would see that they are indeed largely composed of people with some claim to literary expertise. If he asked jurors they would tell him that they do indeed tend to keep notes on what they read precisely for those (admittedly unpublished) discussions about ‘merits and demerits’. He might ask them too why after reading say 140 novels some half dozen will invariably appear on all five judges' personal shortlists. What does that betoken other than that some books really are ‘better’ than others?
Marlon James, the reigning Man Booker laureate, has had a very good festive season. His name cropped up left, right and centre. Whether they had read A Brief History of Seven Killings or have yet to do so, it seems that people like the idea of Marlon James.