Peter Straus on the Man Booker rule changes

Peter Straus on the Man Booker rule changes

The controversy over the Man Booker rumbles on. Agent Peter Straus argues the rule changes will create surprising submission scenarios and calls on the organiser to open its purse strings to reflect the broader canvas

If the reason to sponsor a prize is to get your brand in the news, the Man Group must be absolutely delighted. The coverage of the announcement about the change in rules has been phenomenal. A percentage of the British literary community has reacted with dismay, but it is worth noting this is not the first time there has been such a response. In 1975, when the Booker shortlist appeared, it consisted of just two contenders: an Indian lady, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and an Australian gentleman, Thomas Keneally. There was outcry in the British press then too: the concern was that the prize had turned its back on British writers.

One could, I suppose, argue that continuing a prize that only celebrates Commonwealth writing harks back to the “good old” imperialistic days, and is anachronistic—even xenophobic.

One could also step back and say what incredible sales and marketing opportunites there will be for what is currently the most celebrated English-language literary award to assume global English-language status. The impact of the Booker in the US—which is already strong—could increase in power dramatically. Isn’t that a good thing, and won’t it lead to more coverage and more sales around the world?

Unique

It might, but the Booker’s uniqueness might also diminish. Its current rules had three distinctive qualities: (1) the territory covered, the Commonwealth, was unusual; (2) every publisher could enter an equal number of submissions (aside from previous shortlistees); and (3) this territory allowed the judges each to read all the books entered, rather than divide them up between them.

Over time the Booker became the most celebrated English-language prize globally, a prize which booksellers all over the world—particularly in the US—celebrated and promoted, often in preference to their own Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards and National Book Critics Circle Awards. They celebrated it because it stood for something different and special—no other prize had such a remit—and because over time its sales and publicity machine became unequalled.

The rule change means that this Booker distinction has gone and the same book can now win the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the Booker. Its territorial remit now marries that of the Folio Prize, too.

Sometimes a reaction elsewhere to a prize awarded in its own country can be surprisingly muted: In 1996, when the National Book Critics Circle Award opened its arms to include Britain it was won by Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, and 13 years later it was won by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Neither win seemed to gain huge coverage in England.

Booker longlist

It is interesting to note that the rule change of entry for publishers—whereby a sliding scale depending on how many of a publisher’s titles have been longlisted over the past five years—offers up some bizarre scenarios.

The table of publishers who could enter since the prize’s inception, and had shortlisted titles since 1968, is led by Cape (32) [not including the Lost Man Booker, which would increase Cape’s tally to 34, nor Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair, which the author removed from the 1979 shortlist after it was announced], then Faber (23), Chatto (18) and Hamish Hamilton (17).

Despite this, next year Hamish Hamilton, with its rich tradition of publishing great American fiction—John Updike, Truman Capote, J D  Salinger, and recently Lydia Davis and Jonathan Safran Foer—can enter just two books, the same number as Sandstone Press and Tuskar Rock Press, neither of which has ever had a book shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

This is one more entry than, say, William Heinemann and John Murray, both of whom have not only published shortlisted authors, but even published winners!

Publishing is a long game and literary publishing even longer. It takes years to build up a reputation as an outstanding publisher in that field, and it can only be done by a whole team that is committed long-term to that project. One longlisting itself cannot really justify an equal commitment to literary houses that have been producing outstanding writing for many years, irrespective of the paucity of financial gain.

Shortlisted authors are still eligible by virtue of being shortlisted and are additional to the one, two, three or four available slots depending on a publishers’ five- year longlisting history. In total this produces 67 books aside from any previous winners or shortlistees, and aside from any publishers who enter one candidate only. This is some way off the 125 books read this year. I think concentrating the number of books that judges will read is a good thing, as often less is more.

Increasing the Booker prize pot

It is true that two of the three houses that can enter the most titles aside from those shortlisted (four) have had the most titles selected for the Man Booker anyway (Cape and Faber) but nevertheless, while admirable in attempting to provide the judges with a manageable reading list, the new selection process emphasising longlisted authors underlines for me one glaring inequalitity. The author who is longlisted—and thus could ensure a precious additional entry for its publisher the following year—at the moment goes unrewarded. The shortlistees and the winner are financially rewarded by Man Booker, but those who are longlisted are not. I think that the longlisted authors should now be rewarded by Man Booker as well, perhaps half the amount a shortlisted author receives.

I would underline this by saying that if an agent extends a larger territory of his client to a publisher and grants world English as opposed to UK and Commonwealth rights, then one would expect further remuneration.

In the same way, by extending the territory to the US, I hope that the Man Group pays additionally (and handsomely) for such an extension, and that this fee can be put back into the pot to pay those people without whom the prize would not exist—the longlisted as well as shortlisted authors.

A prize is only as good as its winners and shortlistees, and in turn it is thus only as good as the judges it selects. Offering the reading public the chance for the Man Booker to choose the best book in the whole of the English language published in England in any given year is an illustrious tag, and though not original, it will create great international excitement.

From an outside point of view, if one looks at recent Orange Prize winners and the winners of the Man Booker International Prize, then Americans and US-centred writers have dominated. And that preference can be underlined by the fact that whenever a great English-language novel is rediscovered, it is almost invariably an American one—viz Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, Charles Portis’ True Grit or John Williams 100,000-copy selling Stoner. That must say something of how our literary consciousness and appetite works.

The expansion to America must demand a new level and layer of judges, several of whom should be from around the English-speaking world who should be knowledgeable and critical of their own, as the British judges are of the British authors or Irish judges would be of Irish authors.

The judges have over the years highlighted many brilliant and extraordinary books, both on the shortlist and with the winners themselves. I hope those discoveries will continue and I believe to do so the new panels, in order to escape the stigmatism of the parochial, need to be of great international authority and distinction.

Peter Straus is an agent at Rogers, Coleridge & White, and president of the Association of Authors’ Agents