2012: The Booker Prize Project — Completed!

May 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Articles, Booker Prize Project

So, here we are, faithful readers, 255 novels and more than four years later I am finished. Phew. And to add to the completion of the prize project, George’s book Pinboy—written as a novel but published as a memoir—was short-listed for the BC National Non-Fiction Prize. Then short-listed, again, for the BC Book Prizes. How fitting.

There are so many issues involved with prizes. I have tried to cover some in detail over the past few reports. What I will try to do in this report is sum up the experience, make some conclusions and some recommendations. Here goes.

Good things about prizes

Some prizes sell books. A very few prizes sell a lot of books.

Those prizes that might not sell a lot of books can do other things. Winning a prize is affirming for the writer. If the prize receives any press, and not all do, there is the potential for the book to find new readers.

Researchers say the average person needs to hear about something 8 times before they will react; it used to be 3. Being on a short list helps visibility in the publishing marketplace where these days it is very difficult to get any press or reviews.

Agents tell me that unless a book has been short-listed for a prize, it’s unlikely there will be foreign right sales.

Some writers tell me that being short-listed for a prize helps with the advance on their next book.

Less favourable things about prizes

The big prizes have been charged with creating a bogus elite; celebrity that is conferred not earned.

In the past few years some short-listed books, particularly novels, have created some head scratching. Some juries are not celebrating the big books but have fallen prey to the First Novel craze. This situation seems tied to the point above about bogus elite.

The big prizes use a model of corporate capitalism. The more money the winner receives, the more important the prestige of the prize.

When you speak with people in the industry there is some concern that prizes have become so important that they now have a role in shaping what gets published and what gets written. The following is a thoughtful piece on this topic.

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/writing-to-win/story-e6frg8nf-1225825444846

The more emphasis on prizes, the less attention gets paid to the hundreds of books that don’t get short-listed or win. I don’t believe that situation is healthy for writers or for the industry.

Prizes put a lot of power in the hands of very few people.

Writers know that prizes have become races, and that winning matters. Canada Reads panders to that.

Writers’ festivals have become extensions of the prize system, a runway of sorts for the season’s short-listed writers.

Prizes have become about the economy of spectacle; how many celebrities can you pack in one room. As The Guardian suggested, prizes have morphed from “serious to show biz.”

Prizes don’t reflect what is really going on. They tend to ignore the avant-garde, particular genres and most writing that is experimental. Fiction prizes often favour lyrical realists. Prizes seldom reward real innovation.

Prizes and awards need better transparency. Here is a recent example:

http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/03/12/madeleine-thien-on-transparency/

The Canadian Scene

At The Al Purdy Show I was struck by how many people sought me out after the event to tell me how much they had learned. Partly they were acknowledging how much they had learned about the life and writing of Al Purdy but they were also commenting on what they had learned about the history and development of Canadian literature. “We should have an event like this one once a month.” I suppose it’s not really surprising that in a country where we are not very good at teaching our own literature in our schools that such a situation exists.

It’s great that there was so much interest and excitement for such an event but it also serves to underscore that most literary events are about a handful of books, all new titles. Book launches and also prize ceremonies. Such events do not provide a larger context, except to place this year’s winning book in the corral with the ones from previous years.

An exception is Canada Reads. It’s still using the boxing match formula, as Jion Ghomeshi so eloquently described the “ring” for the 2013 bout, but it does include backlist books. Here are some thoughts from Natalee Caple:

The problem as I see it is more widely systemic. Canada Reads as a project is a great project, bring attention to books that are not this season’s books, ask a bunch of different people from different backgrounds what they would choose. Let readers advocate. Let the process be public. All this is good. The part that is the problem is the impossible load this and every prize now bears in the survival of literature as a whole and these books in particular. As part of global economic shifts review space, bookstores, ad space, readings — the greater variety of ways that books and readers met in the past have been winnowed down so drastically that these boxing matches are the big hope of the little book. The pressure that winning a prize or at least being nominated for a prize the all or nothingness of this as a format without the supporting structure of other formats is devastating. I have nothing against Canada Reads or any other prize but if we only have the one book one prize format we lose so much as community members we lose because we cannot properly cheer for each other. As authors we lose so much in terms of ego and appreciation for what this engagement in a life of art brings us. As readers we lose so much because we wait to hear what to read and by then the other books have been scooped from the shelves. As Canadians we lose so much of our culture.

As regular readers will know, I dislike the competitive element of Canada Reads and think the tone that is set contributes to the general dumbing down of national discourse about literature. But I do believe that Natalee is absolutely correct to point to the larger context. The current publishing environment in Canada is in many ways what Ken McGoogan describes as a backslide to the 60s.

  • Most writers have poor visibility
  • Dramatic decline in book reviews
  • Loss of independent booksellers
  • More writers but less grant money

There are a few other things that need to be considered:

  • The big publishers are increasingly after the international market;
  • Without the other traditional industry supports, all publishers look to prize short-lists to increase visibility for their books;
  • Prizes often reward conventional writing;
  • Media do give some coverage to prizes, which reduces space for reviews even further.

In their book Banking on a Prize: Multicultural Capitalism and the Canadian Literary Prize Industry edited by Jennifer Scott and Myka Tucker-Abramson, the important issue of corporate sponsorship is raised:

Both Richler and Hanson irresponsibly weave a narrative promoting the idea that corporate sponsorship will help “sustain” the funding of “good literature” through the work of impartial judges (unimpeded by “political correctness”), while ignoring the relationship between economic and cultural control, and refusing to dig deep enough to ask who decides what is “good literature” and whose interests that literature serves.

One prominent Canadian writer emailed, “It is political and therapeutic correctness that is the winning formula. (I’m sorry to say, it explains the ubiquity of the Holocaust novel, the overcoming-abuse novel, the “so and so’s daughter” novel, etc. etc.). It’s all about “theme” and “uplift” and not much about writing, although a show of experimental frisson here and there is likely to be a bonus.”

It is time for a radical re-think about how we bring books to market and how we discuss them.

 

Things that could be done to promote writers (not instead of prizes but in addition to)

Train high school teachers to teach contemporary work. Make that work available to classrooms. Bring writers into classrooms.

Host literary events that move outside of already overworked contemporary reading audiences.

Give prizes to critical writing as well as creative.

Facilitate discussions. Train young writers to facilitate discussions, emphasize conversation not only individual achievement (not only, I said, not instead of…).

Increase critical debate. There is a need for more critics and more critical writing. Not book reviewers or journalists but critics with vast reading experience and the ability to articulate a larger conversation but not the too-often inaccessible jargon of academics.

More emphasis on lifetime achievement, longevity and less on first books. Create awards that recognize a writer’s oeuvre, as opposed to a publisher’s book. I think there is a way to do this without giving the appearance of an all-things-being-equal canon but a continuum of critical writers in all genres, one that would recognize Birney’s modernism alongside Lowry’s, but would distinguish between Bowering (critical, lyrical, historical) and Lane (sentimental, narrative, heroic).

Move away from thinking of writing as a lottery, crafting it toward grants and prizes and toward writing as a conversation.

Why have a literature when you don’t have an infrastructure that takes it to the people…the prize market is too late. It doesn’t create new readers. Or not as many as could be generated with a little creative text book editing and targeted training/integration.

Booker conclusions

In many respects the Booker has played a major role in defining literature in the post-colonial world. But the irony is that UK publishers are still in control. A further irony is that in the face of globalization most prizes are very much national competitions in some way. Notice the press when a Canadian gets short-listed for the Booker.

Author Duncan Fallowell responded to Mantel’s 2012 Booker win: “The convergence of current literary awards on to Hilary Mantel is indefensible. It demonstrates a shrivelled enslavement of view in our literary establishment which is more than absurd — it is truly alarming.”

Most of the 255 Bookers that I read have already disappeared from my memory. Even when I read my own reports about these books there are times I really can’t recall much about the novel. Many of the Booker novels would appeal to conventional readers, and I would argue that the Booker contributes to developing (encouraging) conventional readers and a plodding approach.

I’ll give the last word on the Bookers to Dame Margaret Drabble and Sarah Dunant from a piece in The Independent:

At a meeting of alumni in her old Cambridge University College, Newnham, Dame Margaret suggested that she felt pressure from Penguin, to “rebrand” her fiction, The Independent has been told. At the discussion, alongside the novelist Sarah Dunant, she said: ‘I have had a weird feeling that I’m being dumbed down by my publishers and it’s interesting there’s an agenda of how it should be in the marketplace.’

Dunant also commented on the idea of remarketing an author as a “semi-celebrity”:

“’There is also… anxiety over the whole role of prizes in this. We have more prizes than ever before. Who are they really for? Are they to celebrate the writer and the work or is this another arm of marketing in the books trade? Looking at publishing … it has been saturated with the notion of the creation of celebrity as a marketing opportunity … There has to be a box, a place they can put you. I just find it annoying but it doesn’t stop me from writing exactly what I wish to write. This conversation between Margaret Drabble and myself was part of the larger observation that everything needs to be packaged, that writers cannot be who they are,’ she said.”

Conclusions

With rare exceptions, prizes are no longer about celebrating good literature. Prizes are about marketing and creating celebrity. Prizes turn readers into consumers. Just as The Gap wants you to believe their designers know what is cool, prizes want you to accept the opinions of their juries. And I do believe that far too often prizes are awarded based on opinion rather than sound and thoughtful literary analysis and criticism. Life of Pi was Bookered—this is a new word to signify sanctioned by those with limited options for thought (limited options include insufficient time to read the books with care, consideration and reflection).

In the end, prizes are about politicizing and compromise. Let it happen—there is a place for prizes—but see them for what they are. David Foster is on record as saying that “commerce and art are natural enemies.” Don’t mistake one for the other.

I think back to The Al Purdy Show; my deepest concern is that prizes are contributing to an environment where we are losing our voice and losing our stories.

* * *

Jury: Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Dinah Birch, academic and literary critic. Dan Stevens, actor—best know as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. Amanda Foreman, historian and “international bestselling author.” Bharat Tandon, academic, writer and reviewer.

Deborah Levy—Swimming Home purchased ebook

Joe, a famous English poet, and his wife Isabel, a famous war correspondent, are on holidays in a villa with Mitchell and Laura who run a shop that specializes in medieval weapons. These are standard fare characters.

Then a stranger arrives. Well, actually a body is spotted in the pond and they fear it’s floating. Isabel dives in, grabs the leg and Kitty Finch emerges. Naked. Kitty is naked a lot of the time. Kitty explains that she has no place to stay. Isabel invites her to stay at the villa. Kitty is young, writes poetry and has sought out the famous Joe, wanting him to read a poem that she insists is for him, that only he can understand. Again, the intrusion of a stranger who disturbs the status quo is pretty standard fare.

What sets Swimming Home apart is the exceptional handling of the material as Levy explores the search for home and/or the attempt to return home, the nature and consequences of mental health, types and responsibilities of creativity and madness, and the “difficulties of pretending to be relentlessly sane.” And so many others but to add to the lists misses the delicate touch of the writer.

For example, the novel takes place during the time that ET was a huge hit. A poster appears in a store window and there are other small references. Levy doesn’t spell it out but the reader will know (or be curious to find out) the famous line, “ET go home.”

Some questions are answered, others are not. What’s under the bed? Why did Isabel ask Kitty to stay? And that combination of concealment and revelation of desire and dread gives great energy and urgency to the novel. At the end the first urge is to read the whole thing again to see what parts of the web you missed, or overlooked.

Levy has an established reputation as a novelist and playwright of high merit but this tightly written novel was rejected by all the large, medium and small UK publishers as “too literary to prosper in a tough economy.” It was picked up by a new micropress that sells books through a subscription base rather than traditional methods.

Alison Moore—The Lighthouse purchased

I thought Levy would be a tough act to follow. Alison Moore succeeds at the task. Futh has recently been dumped by his wife. He takes a holiday from his job as a maker of fabricated chemical smells (think scratch and sniff), takes the ferry to the continent to go on a walking tour of Germany, the same walking tour he started with his father when he was a lad of 12, just after his mother left his father.

Ah, do you see already the layers and overlapping of this novel? It happens with everything. Plot, names, scenes. It’s all circular. Even the route that Futh plans begins at one hotel, moves in a circle to arrive back at the same hotel before he ends his holiday and returns to his new, lonely apartment full of the boxes his soon-to-be-ex-wife has packed.

The novel and the lives of the characters are permeated with smells. Some are harsh, like disinfectant and camphor. Some are pleasant like violets and perfume. But they all circle back and elicit memories of other things. The smells trigger memories, “It is like being wrenched soul first through time.”

At the moment Futh, then 12, realizes that his mother is going to leave he is holding a perfume bottle in his hand. It had belonged to his father’s grandfather. Made by Dralle’s Illusion there is an inner vial of perfume and an outer silver container shaped like a lighthouse. Futh’s family is at the beach. The father is explaining how lighthouses work, droning on and on:

And then his father took a deep breath and began again. “The foghorn,” he said, “blasts every thirty seconds”

Do you know,” Futh heard his mother say, “how much you bore me?”

she picked up the cool-box and Futh noticed the redness like sunburn on her cheek. Futh’s father took the bag and the blanket and walked with her towards the path. Futh looked down and saw the deep cut on the palm of his hand. The glass vial was broken, the perfume stinging in his wound, spilt on the grass and on his hiking boots.

Futh has carried the silver lighthouse in his pocket his whole life.

This scene is repeated several times, each time with more resonance, and increasing threat. As Futh walks, his feet develop sores, he doesn’t sleep well and he gets lost. He feels he is moving “deeper and deeper into the forest and may never find his way out.” We are in Germany, the Germany of the Grimm brothers where flirtatious and ambitious women have their eyes plucked our by birds.

The path seems never-ending but the viewpoints have tailed off. In the fading light, Futh, with everything but a torch in his backpack, begins to feel that the path might now be taking him deeper and deeper into the forest and that he might never find his way out.

One of the themes of the novel is grief and loss and how we spend lifetimes reliving the hurts we have suffered, and the ones we have caused. Over and over. We are all uneasy travelers. Life and relationships are transitory, and shift, as do the images.

The novel is sparse with building tension—infidelities, angry and jealous men, betrayal. The story spins into a dance of torment that is only added to by the ambiguity. One paragraph in particular sent chills up my spine.

This novel is Moore’s first and is well worth reading.

Hilary Mantel—Bring Up The Bodies purchased ebook WINNER

I played a nasty trick on myself. I had about 20 pages left of The Lighthouse before a flight to Toronto. I deliberately packed all my other reading on my checked baggage, so there I was after 30 minutes with nothing else to read but Bring Up The Bodies. After the tight, spare hand of The Lighthouse this novel is oppressive, with suffocating detail:

Each leaf of a tree, the sun behind it, hangs like a golden pear.

The language gets flowery and florid:

Already, twilight steals across the Thames; there are crepuscular deeps in the lapping waves, and a blue dusk creeps along the banks.

The cast rivals Ben Hur. At the beginning of the novel there is a cast list that runs 5 pages followed by several more pages of family trees. I found myself referring to the cast list about every 20 pages, sometimes more often, right until the end of the novel. Why did I keep getting so lost? Am I a sloppy reader? Part of the challenge is that each character has 3 or 5 or more ways of being identified. He, Cromwell is also Crumb, The Secretary and so on. The titled characters have names but are also referred to by the land they represent, as in Shakespeare. It is part of the times and Mantel uses the various names to good use but it really does bog down in places.

I found the novel cumbersome and indulgent. There is endless detail but no real texture of the time, not for example the richness of Rose Tremain’s Restoration. But Mantel has clearly found her franchise—Thomas Cromwell.

Okay, let me climb down off my haughty reviewer’s horse. Category: historical soap opera. Writers have been milking the Henry VIII story for centuries. It’s a good one. And Mantel has added to the story in interesting ways, exploring the role of Cromwell.

At its best the novel is wickedly funny. Cromwell has “always done what is needed to survive.” Oh, and also to get rich and powerful. Mantel plays with both language and historical themes:

But Parliament cannot see how it is the state’s job to create work. Are not these matters in God’s hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of his eternal order? To everything there is a season: a time to starve and a time to thieve. If rain falls for six months solid and rots the grain in the fields, there must be providence in it; for God knows his trade. It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising, to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy. And as Secretary Cromwell argues that famine provokes criminality: well, are there not hangmen enough?

Henry remains a flat and dangerous character. Cromwell plays his role. We see and hear the world through his eyes only. Henry is a job, and a risky one:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

One of my favourite scenes is when Cromwell realizes the sparing match he is having is like a tennis match, and his opponent has just out lobbed him. His sparring with Bess Seymour is marvellous.

The novel is full of fabulous little details. Henry has a jeweler remake a broach and uses it each time he marries. Three courtships, one jeweller’s invoice.

Hilary Mantel is clearly a walking encyclopedia about Cromwell and this period. And I bet she had fun writing this novel, which reportedly took 5 months. Wow, it takes almost that long to read. I don’t wonder if it was rushed a bit, in an effort to capitalize on the success of Wolf Hall. A third novel is in the works. I won’t be reading it.

When she is done with Cromwell she should take on King Arthur.

Jeet Thayil—Narcopolis VPL

Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India, educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay where his father worked as an editor and writer. He now lives in Delhi. Prior to this first novel, he published four poetry collections and was a well-known Bombay poet, and opium addict. There’s a story and a hook.

Narcopolis is about the narcotic underbelly of Bombay in the early 1970s. The narrator has just returned to Bombay from New York. He attaches himself to a particular opium den and the attached brothel populated by people most of the world would see as degenerates. This world has rituals and traditions, the fixing of the pipe, etc. As time passes, heroin from Pakistan changes the scene. Sex is still the partner of the trade but the traditions fall away to violence. One of the main characters is the city.

Thayil writes well. Unlike many Booker-nominated novels written by Indians or non-resident Indians, this one is not pandering to western tastes. It’s raw. Thayil successfully captures a world that has disappeared.

Drugs are a bad habit, so why do it? Because, said Dimple, it isn’t the heroin that we’re addicted to, it’s the drama of the life, the chaos of it, that’s the real addiction and we never get over it; and because when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of the limited options we are offered—why would we choose anything else?

Tan Twan Eng—The Garden of Evening Mists purchased

Eng has an interesting story to tell, though I have some challenges with the way it is told. The novel panders to the West’s interest in the oriental exotic, is overwritten and sentimental. The symbolism is obnoxiously obvious. Here is a review that gives a nod to the story but also hits the nail about the writing.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/24/garden-evening-mists-tan-twan-eng-review

I would suggest that the novel is on the short list because Eng is the current hot exotic writer and because of the topic. It is particularly startling because the other short-listed books are so well written. Tang is obsessed with similes. Particularly in the garden sections. Here is the one that really did me in:

Magnus gave the Templers a quick history of the highlands as they walked, telling them how William Cameron had surveyed the mountains by riding elephants. “Like Hannibal crossing the Alps,” he said, and Emily’s eyeballs rolled over like a pair of fish sunning their bellies.

There are sections where the information is really interesting, but these passages are like mini-lectures rather than seamlessly fitting into the novel. I’ll remember this novel for the horror of Japanese internment camps and what I’ve learned about Japanese body tattoos.

I’m overstating the case. There is something here, something to be said. But the overly romanticized approach flattens it—though that may be part of the point. It’s almost as if Tang had read Jean’s Guide to Writers, found the marginalized historical moment and…nah, couldn’t be. But he does know the formula and is unapologetic about it. He wants to be Big. It’s just so sloppy in so many ways. For example, on page 300 the first-person narrator (writing her memoirs because she has aphasia) writes, “In the rafters, a gecko clicks. I place the sheet of paper beneath all the other pages I have written, knock them into a neat stack and tie it together with string.” Then she, supposedly, writes another two pages.

Will Self—Umbrella unavailable in North America until January 2013. A friend who was going to London bought a copy for me.

This is Booker novel # 255. My final novel for this project, and what a finale.

1918: Audrey Death—feminist, socialist and munitions worker at Woolwich Arsenal—falls ill with encephalitis lethargica as the epidemic rages across Europe killing a third of its victims and condemning a further third to living death.

1971: Under the curious eyes of psychiatrist Dr. Zack Busner, assumed mental patient Audrey Death lies supine in bed above a spring grotto that she has made every one of the forty-nine years she has resided in Friern Mental Hospital

2010: Now retired, Dr. Busner travels waywardly across North London in search of the truth about that tumultuous summer when he awoke the post-encephalitic patients under his care using a new and powerful drug.

I knew before I started this novel that it involved three different times and was written in stream of consciousness. I got to page 20 and realized I was totally lost. How had I got inside the head of this other character when I was in head of Dr. Brusner? So I started again, from the beginning, reading slowly and carefully. Ahah, that’s where it happened—in the middle of that sentence.

This is a difficult book to talk about because nothing about it is simple or straightforward, but talk about it I did, from page 50 onward. To everyone I know who is interested in reading. It’s very much about language. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book where I have looked up so many words, but with delight not irritation. Will Self has an excellent ear for dialogue and dialect (this aspect was particularly noticeable after the stilted dialect of Half Blood Blues).

But it is also about so many other things including pop culture and its influence, mental health, war, relationships, medical procedures and ethics, technology, our notions of progress, the feminist movement, and the mind—how it works, how it changes. The novel sets out to capture the music and cadence of the twentieth century, and makes an astonishing success of it.

I doubt that Finnegans Wake would have won the Booker had it been around then. But this jury may well have nominated it. In my opinion, the 2012 short-list is the best of the entire history of the award.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/10/umbrella-will-self-review

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings this project to a close. This is page 470 of a 230,000-word manuscript. Yikes.

 

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Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.