Bookers, Burns and bounces

Is the Man Booker Prize losing its edge? I am asking not for a friend, but for all who wish the world’s premier literary award would reassert itself, at a time when we need good books, made with intent, to sell well.

It won’t have escaped your notice that this year’s prize—on its 50th birthday—has been mired in controversy since The Bookseller broke the news that around 30 British publishers had written a letter to prize director Gaby Wood demanding that the foundation rethink its decision to allow all writers, writing in English and published in the UK (and Ireland) to enter. The objection is not about all writers, but some, leading to an “Americanisation” of the award.

Its critics feel the move has compromised the prize; the foundation does not agree, and has told publishers their arguments are wonky—some might infer “Brexity”. The sponsor, at least in the form of Man Group c.e.o. Luke Ellis, remains onside: speaking from the stage, and choosing his words carefully, he said: “We believe the people who will flourish most in the 21st century will be those who are globally at home, not just in the place they hail from.” When I asked him about this, he told me he wanted to make a point, without generating headlines.

There are really two issues in play. Though no one will really say, the so-called Booker Bounce has gone flat—this year’s shortlist has registered the lowest sales since 2000—and though the literariness of Anna Burns’ winning Milkman (Faber) may have been overplayed, the Guardian is right to say that this is not a victor to stir the blood of the nation’s booksellers.

Further, the conversation around the Man Booker has become unhelpful—many publishers, agents and literary editors are upset not just by the rule change, but by the implacability of the foundation. Wood, it seems, is not for turning, but instead wishes for an “ongoing intelligent discussion”. Maybe, but then perhaps she isn’t hearing what many are whispering privately.

We are at the Rubicon. Firstly, as anyone who watched BBC Scotland’s documentary “Barneys, Books and Bust-ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize” will have noted, it is all too easy to ridicule the literary world—as if everyone simply magics up the great books over a long lunch and an even longer row. There’s an art to this business, and a skill in picking the winners—the Man Booker, its judges and indeed the Man Group do us all a great service in how the prize goes about this. Perhaps we all think rather too much about what the Man Booker does (or does not do) for us, and rather too little about the reverse.

Secondly, I often remark on the juxtaposition of the prize ceremony with the Frankfurt Book Fair—but this year there was also an overlap. Both FBF and Booker are in the same battle—a fight for attention in a world that has been led astray. Both have become, almost imperceptibly, less influential.

And finally, let’s reflect on this year’s winner, the softly spoken Burns, living in debt, in East Sussex, who will use the £50,000 prize money to make herself solvent again, and ask ourselves what this tells us about publishing today.