London odds-makers and bet takers were all in a flurry in July, and the subject of their agitation wasn’t the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup or the estimates on whether a peroxide-blond oaf would become the next Prime Minister – no, all the betting action was about books.
Specifically, books and authors: this was the usual frenzy that surrounds the announcement of the longlist for the Booker Prize. Every year, the Booker judges convene over a large pool of candidates and whittle it down to the famous “Baker’s dozen,” 13 titles that will then be further culled to a handful before the winner is announced. Ever since the prize was instituted in 1969, it’s been growing in renown – winning it virtually guarantees that a writer will be catapulted to the front rank of wage-earners for at least a short spurt, if not for the rest of their career. Through a weird combination of literary caché, slow news weeks, England’s intense literary culture, and the mindless momentum of the thing, Booker Prize speculation has been for decades a feature of the literary landscape that’s as intense as it is unlikely.
Handicapping for the longlist is shaved down to a semicolon every year, and 2019 is no exception. Which lucky titles will ascend to the shortlist? Valeria Luiselli’s much-praised book club darling, Lost Children Archive? John Lanchester’s topical social commentary, The Wall? Max Porter’s novella-slim bit of environmental prose poetry, Lanny? Lucy Ellmann’s immense stream-of-consciousness epic, Ducks, Newburyport? Oyinkan Braithwaite’s offbeat fan favoriteMy Sister the Serial Killer? Kevin Barry’s tightly-focused Night Boat to Tangier? Or perhaps one of the two proven titans on the longlist, Salman Rushdie for his Cervantes update, Quinchotte, or Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale?
Back in 2014 the Booker opened its eligibility from books written in the Commonwealth to simply books written in English, which allowed American entries to be considered. Purists complained that this weakened the distinctive flavor of the prize, and they were right – and more weakening was in store: in subsequent years, the Booker (or, as it was briefly known, the Man Booker) seemed to catch a bit of the perverse spirit that recently afflicted the Nobel Prize, with judges seeming to add titles to the longlist purely for shock value or to “shake things up.” In recent years, those longlists have included all manner of easily-disqualifiable ballast, from great hordes of half-finished debut efforts to comic books to action-adventure thrillers.
The Booker had always prompted a certain amount of backstage venom, with onlookers and even judges complaining about its exclusivity, its impulsivity, its eras of clannish myopia. “The Booker is murder,” VS Naipaul pronounced at one point. “Absolutely nothing would be lost if it withered away and died.” Judges were rumored to be completely indifferent, unread, or blindly partisan, and no matter what choices they made, they could be sure of facing a firestorm of carping. “To be a judge you don’t have to know about books,” Joanna Lumley once said, “you just have to be skilled at picking shrapnel out of your head.”
No longlist ever pleases everybody, but the one that recently got all those bet-takers in London so excited, this latest one, at least has a more pleasingly grounded feel to it. There are still some causes for quibbling – Margaret Atwood’s novel, for instance, is strictly embargoed for the second week in September, one day after the shortlist is announced and only a month before the winner is announced – which adds a Star Chamber feel to the proceedings, since that’s barely time for any kind of critical consensus to form, let alone for the general reading public to finish the book. Pretty much the same thing applies to the Rushdie; if either one wins, it’s going to feel a lot like the fix was in from the beginning.
Those kinds of concerns – plus all the others about the balance of genders, ethnic backgrounds, and the detrimentally elitist obstacles to getting a shot at the longlist in the first place – lead a contingent of book-lovers every year to wonder (aloud in public, of course, this being the 21st century) if maybe high-profile book prizes like the Booker or the Nobel – the Pulitzer and National Book Award being two other prominent culprits – ultimately do more harm than good, fostering an in-club atmosphere that starts by hurting the bewildering diversity of the publishing world and ends by hurting the Republic of Letters itself. When booksellers report that the little gold prize-sticker on the front cover of a book really does help attract the much-contested attention of browsing customers, those booksellers seldom sound happy about that fact.
I’ve gone through phases of thinking that way myself, but in 2019 I think even the most justified finicky purism must give way to reality. There’s plenty of evidence that reading for pleasure has been in general decline for a long time; as fundamentally unbelievable as it is for most die-hard readers to fathom, most adults don’t read at all once they leave school.
So if the book world periodically goes into ecstasies over a prize – if a slightly bigger proportion of the general populace is however briefly talking about literature – I say more power to the whole phenomenon. When it comes to books and reading, we need as much prize-mania as we can get.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the
Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.