The day after the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize longlist was announced last summer, UK publisher Tom Chalmers expressed his doubts. While he noted the importance of book prizes as “an increasingly key route through which to discover and champion the best writers, to elevate and highlight the brilliant above the masses of books now being published every year,” they too often fall short, he thinks, by making safe choices.
Still, he pointed to a couple of happy exceptions: the 2013 Costa Book of the Year Award that went to The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction that went to A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.
Unfortunately, this year’s Man Booker longlist caused him to make “a quick check of the calendar to confirm I was still in 2014. In fact, in this Millennium.” Last year’s Man Booker prize was the 826-page doorstop The Luminaries, by Elizabeth Catton, while the big U.S. prize, the Pulitzer, went to Donna Tartt’s 784-page The Goldfinch, an award promptly subjected to rampant second-guessing (though not as much as the consternation in the U.S. literary world in 2012, when the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded no fiction prize at all). I read and liked both of these Big Books, anomalous as they are in a world where 350 pages seems the upper limit on publishers’ risk-taking.
As for the Booker, Chalmers doesn’t object to the new addition of U.S. authors to the pool of potential longlistees—though some of the prize-winning authors do, feeling people from smaller Commonwealth nations will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Americans. Case in point: The 2014 winner, Richard Flanagan, is from Tasmania, which most Americans couldn’t find on a map. He won with a book about World War II, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based on his father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. (Flanagan dedicated the book to his father, who died the day he was told the book was finally finished.)
Chalmers does object to the rules change that allows automatic entries for previous winners. And he notes the selection committee’s neglect of independent publishers. These factors shift the prize toward the familiar, the safe, when it should be “discovering and highlighting the most exciting, dynamic and talented writing.” I want the winnowing role played by awards judges to help me find the best-written books. It will be disappointing if it becomes just an insiders’ club.