Booker And Bookmakers

Aug 12, 20155 min read

"The Man Booker Prize promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year. The prize is the world's most important literary award and has the power to transform fortunes of authors and publishers" This is how the Daily News Muse article on July 5, 2015 began. This is what Man Booker organizers themselves are claiming.

The British probably believe they still rule the world, for this organization to claim this prize as the world's most important literary award, because the award is restricted to what is "written in English and published in the United Kingdom". They are taking it for granted that the best writings are only in English and they are published in UK, and it is more important than the Nobel Prize for literature.

This is just another business gimmick "the winner and the shortlisted authors (which really means the publishers) now enjoy a dramatic increase in book sales worldwide". In other words they are pushing a few UK publications down the throats of the readers all over the world.

Author Tom Chatfield once said that Aravind Adigar's 'The White Tiger', before been shortlisted had sold less than a 1000 copies, and after the Booker award sales had passed one million. But he also says "Prizes grant opportunities, but their pronouncements remain at the mercy of the reading public and he gives an example, Moshin Hamid's 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' lost the Booker to Kiran Desai's 'The Inheritance of Loss', but far outsold Desai."

Even though betting on Cricket is banned, there is serious widespread betting in UK on the Man Booker. Probably it was the 'Gentleman bookmaker' Ron Pollard who began to call the odds on the Booker, and now people bet on the authors, like they would bet on horses. That is the level book awards have come down to. This betting is even mentioned on the Man Booker website.

Richard Gott, The Guardian Literary Editor called the Booker as an annual pseudo-event. He wrote in 1994, "The handling out of literary prizes is more a toss-up than an exact science - and perhaps should be recognized as such. It is not even a guide to what makes a good read. Its sole justification is to spray a little money in the direction of deserving writers. Prizes are a contemporary form of patronage....May be the error made by the Booker judges over the years has been to try to pretend that their decisions amount to literary judgements - when all they have been doing is to participate in a lottery.....No panel of course is perfect...But their composition can be critical. So who chooses the judges? Who forms the hidden committee that makes this annual choice? " He mentions that "Martyn Goff, a little known second-hand bookseller, clubman and minor novelist, now over 70, administers the prize, helps select the judges, sits in at every meeting, provides the grease that oils the machinery of selection." From 1970 to 2006 Goff had continued as the administrator.

This is a very interesting comment, and food for thought, even for us in Sri Lanka. Our own literary awards, by the Cultural Ministry, Book Publishers Association, Vidudaya and Godage, are scheduled for next month. Who selects the selectors, who decides who are the best judges for this year's awards? Because the final decisions of the awards could easily be manipulated by the selection of the judges. It happened even with Booker, when American writers were not eligible for consideration. It was only last year that the Booker was opened out to writers of any country.

The history of the Man Booker is also interesting reading. It began in 1968 when Booker McConnell offered a literary prize of £ 5,000 for a novel. Bookers had owned almost all the sugar plantations in Guyana by early 19th century and had business interest in many third world countries. "In the 1940s and 1950s, the managing director of the Booker company, Jock Campbell, turned it from an expatriate colonial business with interests mainly in Guyana, into a UK-based company dealing in food distribution, shipping and rum marketing. Campbell had literary interests and a friendship with Ian Fleming and he created an author division of Booker, which purchased the copyright of successful authors like Fleming, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, to create tax loopholes for them and a profit for the company.." (Dinah Birch in 'The Oxford Companion to English Literature'). Today it is Man Booker Award with the investment manager, Man Group as the sponsor. What has investment management to do with literature, unless they are investing in the publishing industry. It is like the infrastructure developer, DSC Group sponsoring the South Asia literary award.

Graeme Harper in 'A Companion to Creative Writing' claims that Tom Maschler, publishing director at Jonathan Cape, also played a key role in the founding of the Booker prize. Interestingly, Jonathan Cape is the publisher with the highest number of winning titles! Another interesting fact was that during the first ten years of the Booker, no one had shown much interest, till William Golding's Rites of Passage (1980) and Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) won the Award.

It reminds us of the statement, "No great writer gains lustre from a Nobel Prize. It is only the Nobel Prize that gains lustre from the recipient - provided the right one has been chosen." said Karl Ragnar Gierow of the Swedish Academy, in his presentation speech on the award of the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda.

Jean Paul Sartre had the guts to turn down the Nobel Prize (1964), and he had consistently denied all official honours, and Truman Capote said "The Nobel Prize, to me, is a joke. They give it year after year to one absolutely non-existent writer after another". It also applies to most Literary Awards around the world.

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