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Sound And Fury: The Trouble With The Man Booker Prize
Joe Kennedy , September 19th, 2012 07:43

Joe Kennedy is suspicious about the literary prize's recent embrace of left field and independent fiction

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In 1972, the then four-year-old Booker Prize was awarded to the novelist, poet and art historian John Berger's G, an experimental picaresque set in Belle Époque Europe. Even now, it's a text which strikes most as formally risky and politically recalcitrant, a steep intellectual incline designed to ascend beyond the ceiling of bourgeois complacency and, as such, a spectacularly unlikely recipient of an accolade normally claimed by novels which are variously glib, adipose, winsome, fitful, ephemeral, affected and pompous. Undeniably the most uncompromising of Booker winners, G's militancy was underscored – and arguably exceeded – by Berger's victory speech, which he used to point out that sponsors Booker McConnell had initially become wealthy by using slave labour in the Caribbean. Consequently, he went on, he would donate half the £5,000 prize to the British Black Panthers, and use the remaining money to fund a study into the conditions of Europe's migrant workers.

Berger's gesture is one of only a very few fuck-yeah moments to have occurred anywhere near the mainstream of British literary culture in the last half-century. The Booker, which actually has the temerity to celebrate the 1972 controversy on its website, has become emblematic of malaise, careerism and mealy political equivocation. While there have been dark-horse successes that have chafed against the grain, such as James Kelman's raging, demotic How Late it Was, How Late in 1994, its recent winners have largely been one-paced studies of middle-class domestic disquiet, unthreateningly quirky allegories or sententiously melancholy contemplations of memory and aging.

While most of these have been informed on some level by modernist rule-breakers such as Joyce, Woolf, Beckett and Kafka, they are largely concerned with incorporating the technical advances of these authors into sellable narratives rather than committing to an avant-garde spirit of ongoing experimentation. John Banville's 2005 winner The Sea, to name one particularly egregious example, clearly engages with Beckett's preoccupation with the human compulsion to keep communicating throughout the experience of bodily decay, but transposes this concern from the fractured, repetitive, non-sequiturial structures of a novel like The Unnameable to a stylistic idiom more amenable to holiday readers. Young authors who have attempted to persevere with extending fiction's repertoire of estrangement effects – think, for example, of David Peace, whose nightmarish Yorkshire-based police procedurals nod as much to William Burroughs as to Chandler or Hammett – are usually ignored, as are modernistically-inclined fantasy writers like China Miéville and M. John Harrison. Additionally, the output of independent publishers has typically been overlooked, suggesting politicking by the bigger names in the industry on behalf of their lists.

It's against this backdrop that the two-stage nomination process for this year's prize has taken many by surprise. The shortlist, released last week, contains two novels from indies, namely Alison Moore's The Lighthouse (from Norfolk-based poetry specialists Salt) and Deborah Levy's Swimming Home (from And Other Stories, who have excelled recently in bringing out translations of formally-daring foreign-language works).

Levy's work, despite its middle-class family holiday setting, is an awkward, hard-to-fathom piece in which complex imagery refuses to reveal itself as decipherable metaphor: its ancestors include notorious French mind-screwers Alain Robbe-Grillet and Philippe Sollers, as well as Anglophone nonconformists Brigid Brophy and Ann Quin. The Booker doesn't normally validate writing as semantically and tonally slippery as this, especially when it's underpinned – as Levy's indeed seems to be – by left-leaning political critique.

Swimming Home, one goes on to note, isn't the only unconventional novel on the shortlist. Will Self's Umbrella, its title a nod to Joyce's Ulysses, marks a departure for its author in its employment of a determinedly reader-unfriendly stream-of-consciousness, a word-thicket which celebrates modernism's formal difficulty even if it doesn't really build on it. Considering the presence of Ned Beauman's chronologically-skewed, genre-indeterminate The Teleportation Accident in the longlist, it appears to many as if the Booker has changed its conservative spots. All of a sudden, the prize has brought a previously marginalised avant-garde, small-press scene under the spotlight, thus opening itself to the potentials of the literary underground.

Or perhaps not. One context for this sudden receptiveness to risk is the emergence of a hipster-friendly spin on modernism, a move which has seen some of yesterday's apathetic Nathan Barleys become today's Le Corbusier-conversant utopians. In fiction, this trend has been marked by the rise to (comparative) popularity of writers like Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke, London-based authors praised by many critics for their willingness to challenge the complacency of the McEwan-dominated mainstream. Notwithstanding the fact that this set of novelists generally seem better at recapitulating experiments of the past rather than generating their own – and are therefore 'modernists' only in a self-identifying sense – their emergence has exerted a degree of pressure on publishers and prize committees to find writers who challenge the nineties-noughties paradigm of wistful, earnest narratives ripe for adapatations starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. It's important at this moment in time for agents to pick up 'talent' at least capable of talking the talk when it comes to experimentation.

Added to this is the fact that the judging committees are anything but daft, and are surely alert to a growing indifference to the award born out of its apparently limitless deference to the middlebrow. Large-scale cultural institutions might slip out of touch for a while, but they're usually aware of when an injection of edginess is necessary in order to reclaim a semblance of relevance. The current sponsors are the Man Group, who specialise in 'alternative investments'; that is, ways of multiplying capital through the appreciating value of wine or artwork rather than stocks and shares. Art-world liberals like to kid themselves that the corporate sector is incapable of attuning itself to shifts in aesthetic temperature, but that's ultimately a myth designed to lend culture the aura of autonomy and creativity that, slightly perversely, makes it attractive to investors in the first place. The truth is that Man are fully sensitive to the need of the prize they back for a little re-branding.

None of this is to necessarily to suggest any purposeful complicity between individual texts up for this year's Booker and the corporate agendas which steer literary culture both with the stick of market-focused editing and the carrot of prizes. Swimming Home in particular is disturbing and tricksy in an absolutely admirable way, and – like the independent publishers recognised by the shortlist – deserves greater celebration. Mainstream prize nominations are, however, probably the wrong sort of validation for oppositional literature: while the money received by the victor (which has multiplied tenfold since Berger's win) could sustain a previously struggling writer for a couple of years, and the publicity and finance garnered through a short-listing could enable an indie publisher to budget for more ambitious projects, the Booker ultimately serves to mute dissent through co-option. A hypothetical 'radical' winner would have to be prepared to see its radicality tasked with imbuing corporate interests with the suggestion of countercultural menace.

On top of this – and, let's face it, there are some of you who will be tutting that this tale of the commodification of avant garde energy is (at least) as old as modernism itself – there's the inevitability of any out-of-the-ordinary winner provoking major publishers to go looking for the next neo-modernist sensation. Agents will suggest to those they represent that they stylise their work with Robbe-Grillet-derived indeterminacy or Beckettian temporal circularity, and these gestures towards an extant repertoire of 'experiment' will be at the cost of anything truly deserving of that term. Publishing fads, so often the effect of prize decisions, can retrospectively sap a powerful original of political and aesthetic force, and the thought of a wave of Booker-derived weirdness which merely apes the genuine risks taken by Levy is a depressing one.

Prize culture, then, is something which needs to be questioned and, where necessary, objected to publicly. Since Berger, no Booker winner, regardless of their stated political persuasions, felt obliged to hold the historical genesis of the award to account or raise the issue of how a prize-oriented publishing culture leads to literary homogenisation. Perhaps this will be the year that the underground gets the opportunity to voice its objections.

rOB
Sep 19, 2012 12:13pm

'...glib, adipose, winsome, fitful, ephemeral, affected and pompous.'

This sentence is all of these things.

META-SENTENCE?!

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aaron.
Sep 19, 2012 12:15pm

The Booker Prize has always been total shit. It's the Pulitzer's mentally defective twin brother.

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aaron.
Sep 19, 2012 12:29pm

Oh and some interesting words w/r/t neo-modernism vs. pointless modernist recursion and adornment (or worse, cooption). I've always been wanting to pick your brains on a few things you said on the same subject (esp. "wistful, earnest" narratives of the 90's/00's) a few years ago on a blog of yours somewhere. Neo-modernism is interesting, but what cuts the difference between post-DFW, here-comes-the-flood Zadie-Foer schmaltz... and real post-postmodernism, metaxy-modernism? I think I remember you sneering at DFW, but I'm hard-pressed to find another writer who formally and thematically tried to move beyond this aesthetic double-bind. You speak of the literary 'underground': I would love some recommendations on this same theme. There's a PhD topic in there somewhere...

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Jon Bisig
Sep 19, 2012 12:57pm

Great article and another excellent piece of writing from The Quietus.

Interestingly I was reading 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception' by Adorno and Horkheimer this morning and some resonance here as well; For example,'The constant pressure to produce new effects...serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions when any single effect threatens to slip through the net', possibly over-stating a mono, neo-marxist approach but some relevance maybe?...

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Joe K
Sep 19, 2012 1:38pm

In reply to rOB:

No, I was obviously completely unaware of what was going on there. Thanks for pointing it out.

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tweengling
Sep 19, 2012 2:02pm

stick it to the Man Group!!11

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asdf
Sep 19, 2012 2:03pm

In reply to aaron.:

You mean the same Pulitzer that keeps giving prizes to Tom Friedman & Co?

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gg
Sep 19, 2012 2:40pm

Underground! Counterculture! Experimenation!

So many sexy words. I am on it. Totally.

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aaron.
Sep 19, 2012 3:34pm

In reply to asdf:

I'm sure if the Booker started running a journalism prize it wouldn't get much better. But yes, the Pulitzer's award history for novel/drama/poetry reads a lot more favourably that the Booker's dirge (opinion own).

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Joe K
Sep 19, 2012 4:10pm

In reply to aaron.:

Really interesting comments that I want to come back to later on, but first I'm trying to figure out if you're the Aaron I know if the life-world or not! (Yes, I am prevaricating slightly while I try and come up with a proper answer to this...)

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aaron.
Sep 19, 2012 6:38pm

In reply to Joe K:

Very unlikely. I'm the Aaron that stumbled across your blog at about 4am one night whilst procrastinating from some postgrad research, and had an academic nosey-around. You can hit me up on Twitter @aaroninky - don't want to dilute an excellent article chasing up an earlier intrigue.

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Sep 19, 2012 6:59pm

WHen you look at what's won the Booker over the years it is very poor (including Berger's G quite honestly). I know it's hard to make broad statements about what they've included and excluded over the years, mainly because there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to any of it, but a couple of your comparisons don't quite work for me Joe: "David Peace, who... nod[s] as much to William Burroughs as to Chandler or Hammett" - Burroughs also nodded a lot to Chandler and Hammett, don't forget. And "modernistically-inclined fantasy writers like China Miéville and M. John Harrison" - their books are stylised and intelligent alright, but does that make them 'modernistically inclined'? Depends what you think modernism means perhaps - a lot of modernist writers were defined themselves against pop culture and genre fiction.

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Joe K
Sep 19, 2012 7:34pm

In reply to :

Excellent points, although I don't agree about G - I really think that one day people will see that it's more than a programmatic 'Marxist lecture', as one Guardian columnist termed it not so long ago. The point about Peace re: Burroughs is slightly tricky to respond to, although I'll make a fist of it by saying that Peace is taking the stylistic mayhem of Burroughs and repurposing it for a 'real' detective story, as opposed to an expressionistic narrative which draws on the tropes and atmospheres of Chandler, Hammett et al. Peace, Mieville and Harrison all share a tendency to take modernist formal devices (the indeterminacy and interpretative dead ends of Kafka, in particular) and mobilise them in genres which have hitherto depended on a certain degree of narrative closure, as opposed to 'Booker' novelists who have taken the *themes* of modernism and deployed them within largely closed structures (I think this also goes for Tom McCarthy at times). While I agree that many high modernists defined themselves in opposition to popular culture, the intersections between the avant-garde and pop have been going on for a long time - not just, say, between Robbe-Grillet and detective fiction (or, for that matter, Kafka and folk tales) but between Beckett and music hall. There's another (strong) argument which would say that modernism's spirit has best been maintained by popular culture - electronic music is one piece of evidence in favour of that.

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Joe K
Sep 19, 2012 7:36pm

In reply to aaron.:

Sure - will do that! I thought you were a guy I used to work with. That blog piece is from ages (relatively speaking) ago: didn't know anyone but my friends and family ever read it...

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Simone
Sep 19, 2012 9:58pm

The Booker is not supposed to be an avant-lit. prize, so I don't really see the point here. It selects middlebrow-to-highbrow fiction and I think it does an excellent job in that regard. When I'm in the mood for more adventurous fare, I simply go looking elsewhere...
Having said this, yes, they could perhaps involve indie publishing houses more.

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Joe K
Sep 20, 2012 9:39am

In reply to Simone:

The point is almost exactly that - the Booker has symbolised a prize culture which has prevented publishers taking gambles on risk-taking novels. As a result of this, we shouldn't be letting the prize off the hook just because it's made a one-off play for credibility.

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Brendan Wyer
Sep 20, 2012 9:28pm

Didn't J G Farrell do something similar with his acceptance speech?

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Sep 20, 2012 11:47pm

In reply to Joe K:

Ah, then perhaps it depends how much strain these isms can take. Just thinking aloud here, but the indeterminacy in Mieville et al sounds to me like something you'd also find in Thomas Pynchon and other writers more often called postmodernists. Robbe-Grillet and Beckett are often called that too.

Haven't read Peace, but his process sounds similar to the McCarthy route in a way: fetishising modernism within a less "challenging" form. In Peace's case, chop up the running order/perspective, but make sure the plot's always driving. In McCarthy's, approach modernist-type subject matter within the confines of a 'conventional' adventure story (delivered in the tone of a public school prefect, to put the panel at ease!)

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Wook
Sep 21, 2012 2:51am

In reply to Joe K:

1) So what other books were nominated and 2) What do you think of them? Am too lazy to Google and your POV would be interesting.

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Simone
Sep 21, 2012 5:21am

In reply to Joe K:

What has prevented publishers from taking gambles is the fact that experimental stuff is a micro-niche, especially in a time when novels are already under heavy fire by other forms of (more) popular entertainment such as TV series, videogames, etc.
Honestly, I think the Booker does a very good job in terms of promoting good literature to folks who might otherwise veer away from it. The alternative wouldn't be experimental lit., more likely something other than literature itself.

As for this year's prize, I haven't read eveything on the menu but Hilary Mantel's "Bring up the bodies" is a bomb.

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John Doran
Sep 21, 2012 6:40am

In reply to Simone:

Then it should be marketed as such. At the moment they claim to exist to reward the "best original full-length novel" not the best mainstream novel.

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Simone
Sep 22, 2012 12:40pm

In reply to John Doran:

well, it think the truth lies somewhere in between. The Booker is not about mainstream fiction, that would be Clive Cussler, Harry Potter or whatever is topping the bestseller list right now. The Booker is about great fiction (which is generally unconcerned with the notion of being experimental or not). Yes, I agree with you that "original" is a misleading term but this is as far as my criticism towards the Booker will go :-)

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Karl Smith
Sep 22, 2012 2:30pm

In reply to Simone:

Just by-the-by, titles like Mantel's out sell Cussler fairly convincingly and are most definitely mainstream fiction. (Bring Up The Bodies and Wolf Hall were both 'chart toppers' in terms of numbers sold.)

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JSR
Sep 24, 2012 6:24am

Someone hasn't been laid in a while.

It's bad enough that book critics exist, and then it is even worse that book awards exist, and that this article exists makes it all the more worse. Shut up and write something that affects people.

This article reads like a spam email your syntax is as accessible as a wall and as enjoyable as a doorknob. .

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Joe K
Sep 24, 2012 8:27am

In reply to JSR:

'As enjoyable as a doorknob'? Brilliant.

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Karl Smith
Sep 26, 2012 8:24pm

In reply to JSR:

While I don't agree with what you're saying, JSR, out of context that is fantastic.

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Nick Einhorn
Oct 16, 2012 4:45pm

I don't think you know what "alternative investments" are; they're mostly non-publicly-traded companies, commodities, real estate, specialized debt investments, etc., not art and wine (which are maybe a tiny chunk of the total category).

Anyway, it's not really clear what you want - do you want the Booker to stop existing, or authors/publishers to stop caring about it? Or do you want the press to examine the source of the money that the sponsor uses to fund the prize, which is about as middlebrow an act as the reading of recent prizewinners? If there are true radicals out there, they probably ignore the prize anyway, and the judges are likely to perpetually repay the favor.

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Nick Einhorn
Oct 16, 2012 4:49pm

In reply to Nick Einhorn:

I do, though, agree that "G" is a great book.

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mr_x
Jan 11, 2013 10:23am

not sure about the point - you say co-option by the booker leads to a muting of dissent and then ridicule the prize for not featuring more radical writing/authors... i would prefer if they just left the underground alone.

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