Do ya think I’m sexy?: Vanity, bravery and the Booker Factor

The Booker longlist was announced on Wednesday. For those of you who weren’t sitting in front of Twitter all day pressing refresh, here it is:

Nicola BarkerThe Yips (Fourth Estate)
Ned BeaumanThe Teleportation Accident (Sceptre)
André BrinkPhilida (Harvill Secker)
Tan Twan EngThe Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
Michael FraynSkios (Faber & Faber)
Rachel JoyceThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday)
Deborah LevySwimming Home (And Other Stories)
Hilary MantelBring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
Alison MooreThe Lighthouse (Salt)
Will SelfUmbrella (Bloomsbury)
Jeet ThayilNarcopolis (Faber & Faber)
Sam ThompsonCommunion Town (Fourth Estate)

My thoughts on the books themselves won’t take up much space, for the simple reason that I haven’t read any of them – all are recently published and some aren’t even out yet. I’m not a great fan of judging a book based on its cover (literally, chortle), so I’ll try to refrain from speculations based on gossip and my preference for minimalist jacket design. Equally, I shan’t go down the well-trampled route of bemoaning the books that weren’t on there… much.* Instead I want to think/write a little bit about the idea of the literary prize and the creation of taste – culminating with a slightly shameful admission.

Taste.You can see my eighteenth-century roots showing through here, since the  idea of taste was a massive preoccupation  from about 1700-1800. But I also think the notions of what it is to judge, discriminate and appreciate are as important as ever these days  – perhaps more so. Although cultural studies has in many respects opened up the floodgates when it comes to deciding what is ‘high’ culture (see my recent post on Harry Potter Studies ), people still manage to have frequent and heated discussions about what is ‘good’ art and what is not. These discussions are nowhere more volatile than in circles of passionate readers (though film buffs give them a run for their money).

I’ve got a bit of a theory about this. It’s pretty much entirely unevidenced, and someone’s probably come up with it before, but hell, I’d love to know what you make of it anyway. I think that every time there’s a technological or social development that opens up a previously elite medium or product to mass consumption, those who previously enjoyed it will find a replacement. They will fix on a new criteria to act as the badge of quality, the hallmark of elite cultural experience. What gave me this idea was reading a book by the Romantic scholar Deidre Lynch called The Economy Of Character. In it, she argues – this is a brutally simplified version – that the rise of psychological interiority in fiction of the late eighteenth century – the very idea of character as we know it – can be partly explained as a response to commercial pressures including the explosion of print culture. As I read her argument, once (among other commercial developments) the physical book lost its exclusivity, certain kinds of content – certain kinds of tropes, certain kinds of caricatured characters – became associated with that mass consumption, and new kinds of character – ‘unknowable’, ineffable characters – started to be created by highly educated, elite writers and lionized by highly educated, elite readers. To discuss these characters in public began to stand as a sign that one was a truly cultured reader, a reader of taste.

That’s a crass summary of a very long and very complex book, but you get the gist. Certain readers crave the desire to think of themselves as an elite, and they will shift the criteria they use to define elite taste rather than suffer others to colonize the familiar ground with them. This applies to both the form and the content of the reading experience. They’re not always separable.

There are probably numerous examples of how else this tendency might have been manifested over the last couple of centuries. I’m interested at the moment in thinking about how it might apply to the rise of the e-book. I used to see someone with a Kindle and, despite my reservations about its homogenization of the reading experience, instinctively assume they were a sort of ‘reader of quality’ – wow, they care that much about reading? that they’ll spend that much money on that gadget? But as Kindle prices dive and the numbers sold soar – and printed books sell fewer copies in comparison – might we see this instinct turn on its head? If printed books become more expensive, beautiful collectors’ items only available to those with the funds or passion, might we see the printed book once again function as a symbol of an elite reading experience?

I could go on and on about this, but for now let’s focus on the role of literary prizes. I assume that many brave books are probably only published because it’s assumed that although they’re not natural bestsellers, they might have a crack at the Booker or Orange Prize, which are judged by members of the literary elite and therefore confer a mark of distinction on both the author and the publisher. Which, almost-ironically, might make them bestsellers among the general public, because of the urge I’ve outlined above, to be part of this literary elite. See a good set of data here on sales after last year’s Booker prize – – for example, sales for Julian Barnes’s The Sense Of An Ending shot up by almost 600% after he took home the gong.

I have experienced this urge at first hand when it comes to literary prizes. It’s sort of painful to admit this, but if I pick up a book in Waterstones or the Little Apple shop round the corner, I’m quite a lot more likely to buy it if it has ‘SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2010’ or ‘WINNER OF THE ORANGE PRIZE 2011’ written on it. Why? There’s no guarantee it’ll be any ‘better’ – any more to my taste –  than the book next to it, which didn’t get shortlisted. All that stood between Book A and Book B was the subjective choice of a panel of five people whom I’ve never met, probably shepherded together for largely cynical reasons, who all have their own preferences, agendas and axes to grind. I’d be better off asking my friends, whose tastes I know and opinions I definitely respect.

If I analyse my own reasons carefully, I’m afraid they’re not pretty. I’d say it’s about 30% a vague notion that these judges probably have quite a few brain cells to rub together and have done some important filtering work for me. And it’s about 70% the fact that I want to be the kind of person who reads the Booker shortlist. I want to have my finger on the pulse! I want to know who’s hot! I want to make sexy literary conversations while smoking cigarettes at parties!

Sorry, but there it is.

“So we’re basically talking about literary hipsters?” a friend responded when I put this to him recently. Well, yes and no. The craving for an elite reading experience certainly looks dangerously close to snobbery from some angles, and from others looks dangerously divorced from any value system based on pleasure in language, the joy of learning or the desire to enlarge one’s own compass of empathy and experience.

On the other hand, I think there is something to be valued in this desire to be different. It’s an age-old truism that the market has its downsides because people like what they’re familiar with. Imagine the frustration of a writer constantly being asked by publishers to stick to the genre they know because it sells, because they’ve got a fan base, because it sells already so why fix what ain’t broke? Maybe prizes provide respite from this tendency. May I humbly submit that if it weren’t for this constant forward propulsion in certain circles to find something original and unusual and ‘high quality’  – even if it’s to cater to the vanity of ‘elite’ readers – then books that push the boundaries and change lives for the better might never get made? The snobbery performs a useful function. It makes it worth one’s while to write and publish brave books.

Well, that’s what I’ll tell myself as I perform my role as a willing cog in this process for yet another year, and pore over the Booker longlist again. Oh – that and the fact that I have an extra reason to Buy Booker this year. My old undergraduate tutor, Dinah Birch, was on the judging panel. I do remember Dinah (she only taught me for one year) to be a truly excellent and judicious critic – in my first few weeks she told me that I had to get out of the habit of writing like an elderly Victorian gentleman with the gout. And looking back at my first year essays, my God she was right. So I’ll trust her on the longlist.

I don’t have enough money to buy all twelve books, so I’m going to try to get three. I’m currently minded to go for the following:

1) Hilary Mantel Bring Up The Bodies: This is the only one that I can honestly say I always had on my List. Wolf Hall was sensational. I’ve been drooling over the prospect of this one ever since it came out.

2) Michael Frayn Skios: Because it’s been touted by the pundits as ‘readable’, which probably means things happen in it. I’m not a fan of stasis.

3) Will Self Umbrella. Loved Great Apes. Got a sneaky crush on the man himself.

Welcoming all recommendations / thoughts though – anyone else snobbing it up with me?

*Oh goddammit, alright, can I just say that I can’t wait to read Zadie Smith’s NW and am amazed that her first offering in almost a decade didn’t make it on… and that I can’t imagine any of the novels above bringing me  more delight than Stephen May’s Life! Death! Prizes! did? But then I didn’t just trawl through the 147-strong pool of nominations, so I suppose I can zip it right there.


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