Food for thought

The annual cocktail of fiction fatigue, critical cynicism and bookmakers’ speculation that has been brewing over the past month reached boiling point this time last week as London’s literati prepared for the announcement of the 1997 winner of the prestigious Booker prize. This glitzy, gastronomical event at the Guildhall represents the culmination of the contest to pick the best new novel of the year. The shortlist of six recently published titles must be reduced to a single contender by the panel of five judges in almost as many weeks.

But is the competition simply a question of the survival of the fittest, or does personal taste play too large a role in the judges’ appraisal of the fiction felt best for public consumption? Few shortlists have represented united critical opinion on the part of the judges, this year’s being no exception to the rule. A disappointed Dan Jacobson evidently found it hard to stomach the notable absence of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love from the literary menu ‘a la carte’ announced on September 15th.

The ritual lack of consensus each year (the 1996 shortlist similarly excluding Martin Amis) demonstrates the extent to which the competing authors are subject to the personal preferences of the judges: academic Gillian Beer; journalist Jason Cowley; Jan Dalley, literary editor of The Independent on Sunday and novelist Rachel Billington. All figures of highbrow cognoscenti, hardly a cross-section of the general public whose literary taste buds the Booker seeks to tantalise, not without hope of promoting book sales.

Yet opting for this unusually open shortlist as opposed to one which is gilt-edged (and therefore highly marketable) reflects the publisher’s duty to promote new and lesser-known writers, including two debut novels: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Mick Jackson’s The Underground Man.

The judges appear to have consciously circumvented any bias for established names, and avoided the contemporary perception of author-as-cultural-event, a trapping, paradoxically, of our prize-dominated culture.

Booker ‘97 also seems to address to some extent the past gender imbalance regarding the shortlist and the make-up of the judging panel itself, both of which have a history of being male-dominated. This year’s panel comprised a 1:1 male/female ratio; the shortlist included two women writers out of the six, and since the prize’s first year in 1969 Arundhati Roy is the eleventh female winner.How much of this is politically correct tokenism is anybody’s guess.

This year also affirms Booker’s intention to encourage more ex-colonial writers, giving it an altogether more exotic flavour. Roy’s success recalls other Commonwealth winners such as Salman Rushdie with the highly successful Midnight’s Children (1981), and the Australian Penelope Lively, 1987 winner with Moon Tiger. The inclusion of post-colonial writers, especially unfamiliar names, comes up against as large a dose of criticism as past incidences of their exclusion, but at least placates the politically correct.

Yet few would deny that the future of the prize is dependent on overcoming a Britain-centric attitude, and moving away from stock ingredients of the familiar and conservative in favour of the imaginative, daring and original.

Martyn Goff, administrator of the Booker prize, outlines the raison d’ĂȘtre of the prize as “to reward the best novel of the year” and to stimulate the man-on-the-street’s appetite for serious fiction. The ensemble of media coverage, author signings and readings, and the film and television interest in the titles glowing with Booker prestige help bring the general public into closer contact with serious fiction, bridging the gap between highbrow and popular culture.

In a year where media coverage has displayed a distinct tendency to discredit the reputation of the Booker , its organisers may well consider a revamp of next year’s competition in order to avoid the charges of elitism and subjectivity.

No doubt the literati will have chewed over an assortment of ideas at this year’s award dinner for a recipe for the future success of the prize.. What solutions will they throw up for next year?

Sarah Willcocks

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