Booker to Boot?

Literary awards are a universally popular means of judging books.  But should we consider abandoning them? Logan Wamsley argues that “we need awards like the Booker more than ever.”

This year’s Man Booker Prize belongs to the young Ms. Eleanor Catton for her 832- page epic The Luminares, and unfortunately that means she inherits all the backlash that comes with it. “The prize is no longer relevant,” some say. “Are prizes necessary when we all live in the brave new frontier of consumer capitalism, where the people can decide for themselves what’s good or not?”

“Capitalism isn’t kind to the little guy, which is where awards come in”.

They’re absolutely right. But they only prove why we need awards like the Booker today more than ever. The capitalist world of dollars and cents is a cruel mistress indeed. As much as we like to think that quality art will always triumph over bureaucracy, the sad truth is that art, like everything else, is a slave to the system. For a writer to reveal their work to the world, they need a way to get the world’s undivided attention.

But capitalism isn’t kind to the little guy, which is where awards come in. The Man Booker Prize, like any other such award, actually increases consumer choice by allowing options to enter the public sphere that would go unnoticed otherwise. People usually spend their valuable time and money only on books they’ve heard of, and industry heavyweights are going to have far more resources to accomplish that than any noble starving artist.

“The Booker is designed merely to be a suggestion.  No one is forcing you to agree, and certainly no one is forcing you to buy it.”

What so many fail to realize is that awards are not designed to discover the “book/film/album of the year.” That’s impossible; everyone will have an opinion, and the Booker judges would be the first to tell you that. The Booker is designed merely to be a suggestion of what that book of the year could be.

No one is forcing you to agree, and certainly no one is forcing you to buy it. In fact, whether the winning piece is considered good or not is irrelevant; what’s important is that the award starts a dialogue, which in turn spreads knowledge. There can be only one award recipient, but ultimately we all benefit.

Talia Samuelson argues that literary awards are artificial, condescending and unnecessary.

It seems that literary awards, among them the Man Booker, ooze artificiality. They paste fluorescent stickers on the winner’s cover, which then, having embedded themselves in the public conscious, proceed to mould the book charts. It’s contrived, not to mention unnecessary. Books have historically had an array of hurdles to clear before they’re permitted a flirtation with success. Publishers, critics and a cynical public already purport to filter the wheat from the chaff, so why do we need the book prize?

“Literary awards, among them the Man Booker, ooze artificiality”

There’s definitely an element of condescension- apparently we require the ‘literary direction’ of intellectually superior individuals with a host of post-nominal letters to flaunt. This year, the Man Booker judging panel was entirely white and all ex-Oxbridge. So for Ion Trewin, of the Booker Prize Foundation, to champion its “common man” approach, is rather amusing. These people are far from the “common man,” having no doubt enjoyed privilege unimaginable to the best of us. Why should they judge books on behalf of the general reading public, when they all issue from the Olympus of academia?

“the appreciation of good literature is now secondary to the money-making schemes of the sponsor.”

That literary awards are losing focus, and thus their authority, is hinted at by some frankly incongruous sponsorships. Bailey’s, for example, shares little with the women’s fiction prize that it sponsors. With a sponsorship repertoire including Desperate Housewives, such an association for any winner will surely demean their work in the eyes of the public. It appears the appreciation of good literature is now secondary to the money-making schemes of the sponsor.

It’s possible, that like books themselves, the lifespan of the book prize is finite. The conventional bound book with its crisp white sheets and *AWARD-WINNING* sticker is losing its allure as we witness the rise of the ebook. We won’t need to heed the subjective views of judges- we’ll be able to download a host of samples in seconds and judge for ourselves. Only then will we be freed from the direction of the book prize.


But what did you think?

51% of students said they are more likely to buy a book that has won a prize.

57% of students said they found book prizes helpful.

only 6% of students knew what types of book the booker prize is promoting.

only 16% of students knew who had won the Booker Prize this year.

Logan Walmsley and Talia Samuelson

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One Comment
  • Brononymous
    31 December 2013 at 20:03
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    I think literary awards (much like any awards, The Oscars, Grammys, etc.) need to be taken with a pinch of salt. When an artist or their work wins an award that is more of a reflection of the awarding body identifying & defining itself by that work or artist.

    To look at this year’s Man Booker Prize, while its panel was made up of Oxbridge academics it did feature 3 debut novels, 7 female authors, novelists of 6 different nationalities & a multimedia ebook series thing. While the judges are indeed of the old guard, the authors certainly weren’t. If this year’s Man Booker Prize was making any kind of statement, it was that diversity and quality are highly linked.

    I think academic input is of vital necessity in contemporary literary markets because in its absence all we have left is popular consensus and consumer sales, which would lead to a sea of Da Vinci Codes & 50 Shades of Greys. Now those books have their place & certainly entertain a lot of people, but equally works such as The Luminaries, 1Q84 & The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay are all deserving of an audience & are offered little other avenue for exposure than literary awards.

    I think criticisms that these prizes have “lost touch” with modern audiences is highly redundant. Awards ceremonies are self contained & about celebrating the particular group of artists selected by that awarding body. Most people read romance, fantasy or young adult fiction because they want something they know they’ll like. No matter how much you introduce people to more diverse & challenging works, only a small percentage of people will take notice & even fewer will bother to read them.

    Most people are dumb & don’t like to be challenged emotionally or intellectually, they like the familiar & gravitate towards things that feel safe & non-confrontational. Just look at the highest selling books of all time, books like Angels & Demons sell 4 times as well as The Kite Runner. The truth is exceptionalism is the exception. The brilliant, complex & challenging fall to the wayside, while the safe & the familiar is the norm.

    They don’t hand out prizes for being the most popular or best selling books. That’s what the money is for.

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