Booker · criticism · Julian Barnes · reading

You’re all winners

All the talk recently about Julian Barnes Booker win and all the questions it has thrown up (much the same questions that seem to be thrown up every year,) makes me wonder why the Booker prize even has a winner. I’m not really sure what it achieves. This isn’t like the time I tried to convince people that the Olympics would be improved if they set a target on each event and gave a gold medal to anyone that hits it, (like say, a gold medal for anyone that runs a hundred meters in eleven seconds or less.) My Olympics idea was a joke, even if people did seem to think I was being serious. But with the Booker, and other prizes of an artistic nature, it might make a little more sense.

At least with the hundred meter sprint you can’t deny that the winner deserved to win. The Booker is judged arbitrarily on subjective qualities. It’s not surprising that people don’t always agree. I thought the Booker tried to get around some of the problems by stating that the contest is judged solely on the quality of the book, without taking into consideration that career of the author, but there is still often question over whether that really is the case. I’m not saying Barnes didn’t deserve to win, I thought Sense of an Ending was an excellent book but I didn’t read all of the others on the shortlist. But there did seem to be a sense of Barnes win being overdue, and if the prize is judged on the strength of the book solely that that wouldn’t make sense. Of course, making the shortlist four times does, at the very least, suggest the kind of excellence required to win.

Every year I am keen to see which books are on the shortlist, and every year I couldn’t give a stuff which one wins. It just doesn’t seem important. It doesn’t tell us which book is the best, not really. It just tells us which book the judges thought was the best. And that’s a different thing. I’m not saying they get it wrong, I’m just not sure that using the word ‘best’ to describe one novel out of six which were all considered good enough to be on the shortlist is a useful thing to do. Why not just do away with having a winner at all? Make the announcement of the shortlist the big finale to the whole affair. It’s not surprising if more than one book in a year can be considered excellent. Why then worry about which is most excellent?

I expect the point of the Booker is to promote great writing. It gets people reading, and talking about writing and writers. The shortlist does that. Picking a winner tends to just leave people wondering about what the judges criteria were. It gets people arguing about whether readability is a quality of a great novel, of if a novel of 150 pages is really a novel at all.

As part of last years World Book Day there was a program that selected a group of writers of merit, discussed the books, discussed the choices, but didn’t get bogged down in wondering which of them was the best of the group. That seemed good to me. All the writers on that list were winners. When I pitched my Olympics idea I was accused of trying to dumb down, of trying to appease people who weren’t winners and just placate people. Not an unfair criticism of what I hasten to remind was only ever a joke suggestion. But the Booker isn’t the Olympics. No one sits down to write a novel with intention of winning a prize. Excellence should be applauded, great books ought to be celebrated, but worrying about which book is the best of the best just doesn’t seem worth it.

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