Prizes and politics

With the Booker prize winner announced this week the papers have provided the now seemingly obligatory counter-attack. Robert Harris blasted the Booker in the Evening Standard. However, yesterday's Guardian had Mark Lawson claiming that cultural prizes serve a valuable role in bringing art to a wider market. I am a bit undecided. Many of the complaints against cite irrelevance and being out of touch. Yet Lawson says that the attackers are missing one vital point: the purpose of the Man Booker is to promote the kind of work which audiences are reluctant to find otherwise. Fair point. Enright's book had sold little over 3000 copies on the eve of the prize, and much was made of the even lower sales figures of the other shortlisted titles (excluding McEwan, whose On Chesil Beach is now over 100,000). I am glad that there is a huge prize that realises that talent frequently does not equate with 'units shifted'. Lawson says that many miss the point that an originally written novel may have vanished completely without the prize. But what he, or any of the other critics, and we are all Critics nowadays, fail to emphasise is that it is the publishers who are responsible for choosing which books to submit to the panel in the first place. The panel can then call in, I think, 16 titles that haven't, for some reason, been submitted. And, for me, this is one of the problems. I believe ALL books should be called in as the current system more or less has publishers as being the first stage of the panel that is then going to judge that publisher's titles. The decided bit of me thinks that the Booker panel would have to be greatly revised to include more appropriate judges, and thay means much more diversity, for it is hardly representative of anything except the traditional almost Leavisite literary gate-keepers of yore. Many would say this is how it should be - an elite who determine what is talent enough to win and what isn't. The problem is though, that elite are still overwhelmingly white and middle-class. But isn't this just reflective of novelists themselves? To a degree, yes. But novelists are far more culturally diverse than even ten years ago, and the long and shortlist was fairly representative of this. But, again, the one group whose absence is still all too clear is that of the working-class woman; a very strong thread throughout the novel's long history. This cannot be refuted. It was also telling, therefore, that the front page story of the same issue of The Guardian shouted that class inequality is still rife in the UK. Politics and culture? Hand in hand.

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