It's the height of literary award season and WD senior editor Amy Jones considers what prizes like The Booker Prize have to offer readers and writers (other than the prize money).
I hate playing favorites when it comes to books. Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite book? These are questions I dislike getting because they’re so hard to answer! I have so many follow-ups before I can even begin to narrow down the card catalogue of books I keep in my head: Living or deceased author? Contemporary or classic novel? Literary fiction, historical fiction (and if so what time period)? And on and on.
But, ask me what my favorite literary prize is and I can give you an answer straightaway—The Booker Prize, formerly known as The Man Booker Prize—which announces its 2019 winner today. And before we get into it, I know awarding a prize for the best book is a ridiculously subjective task and often prone to controversy (hello, Nobel Prize for Literature...). But I think if you look at literary prizes through a different lens, they do have value.
I learned about the Booker Prize in college by accident. Someone donated a box of used books to the student organization I was involved with at the time and one of the books had a “Booker Prize-winning author” blurb on it. My first question was who is “Man Booker” and why haven’t I heard of him before if he’s got a prize named after him? A quick Internet search set me straight.
The Booker Prize and My Longlist Reading Challenge
The Man Group sponsored the prize which was only open to novelists writing in English from British Commonwealth countries or former British Commonwealth countries with books published in the UK and Ireland. That fascinated me—no authors from the United States allowed? How interesting. As someone who was always interested in books set in England, I was hooked. Little did I know, being set in England wasn’t a requirement! [The actual requirements and the sponsor have since changed.]
I worked at Borders Books during that summer break and when the Longlist of 12 (maybe 13?) books was announced, I found a way to get my hands on all of them. Many were already published in the US or on their way to being published in the US, but others didn’t have a hint that they would ever have a US print date. So I special ordered them from England. I loved the idea of getting books before they were widely available on this side of the Atlantic. The covers were different, the paper and binding was different, and it was like having special access to books before they were published.
My goal, for many years, was to find access to the entire longlist and read it before the winner was announced in October. I’ll be honest, part of my motivation for reading all of the longlisted books was to be able to say I’d read the winner. I placed a lot of stock in that at the time. Though, I can’t say I often met the goal of reading all 12, in the process of trying I discovered many writers from around the world I otherwise wouldn’t have.
Benefits of Literary Prizes for Writers and Readers
And this is where I see the benefit of literary prizes, not just the Booker. If they’re well thought out and set up, literary competitions that play out over the course of many months with longlists, shortlists, and finally a winner will make use of those months to celebrate the authors they’ve chosen. To expose those authors to a wider readership that they might not get from being a mid-year, mid-list novel. Because any one of those longlisted could be the winner, they must each have some merit according to the guidelines of the prize, of course. But more importantly, the authors the prize has chosen for the longlist include a wider spectrum of authors—not just the well-known names.
This is what I loved about the Booker prize—it introduced me to novelists like Amitav Ghosh, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mohsin Hamid, Indra Sinha, Aravind Adiga, Steve Toltz, Mohammed Hanif, Andrea Levy, Esi Edugyan, André Brink. Authors writing about and with heritage from India, Pakistan, Japan, Australia, Jamaica, South Africa. In other words, authors not likely (at least at the time I got interested in the Booker) to be promoted in the US until a prize like this thrusts the spotlight on them because they aren’t writing about the US.
Now the Booker Prize allows authors from around the world (including the US) writing in English to enter the prize and when that rule changed there was much to-do about whether that was the right choice. And I’ll admit, I was one of the people not thrilled with the decision thinking, we have the National Book Award, do US authors need access to the Booker too? But as I remind myself on a regular basis, a literary prize is what you, the reader, make of it. Are you buying into the idea that it’s the best X-type of book of the year? Or are you more interested in discovering new-to-you writers? If the former, you may come away disappointed if your taste doesn’t match the judges. If the latter, you might discover a world of great writing.