How students of the 'digital literary sphere' are analysing the Man Booker Prize

How students of the 'digital literary sphere' are analysing the Man Booker Prize

Here at Loughborough University, our English students are busy making blogs and vlogs about this year’s Man Booker Prize. This is one of the assignments for a new module which I am teaching this year - From Fan Fiction to YouTube: Navigating the Digital Literary Sphere.  The module looks at the ways in which the acts of authorship, reading and publishing have been transformed by the digital revolution, and follows the argument of a ground-breaking new study by Simone Murray, The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing and Selling Books in the Internet Era. The Man Booker for 2018 is introduced as a case study, and the students have already honed their digital skills by making and presenting powerpoints on all of this year’s longlisted titles. 

In fact, we had our own awards evening which was tightly timed so that we could feature the presentations and some debate about which title should win. We then watched the live broadcast of the announcement. It was remarkable to be among the students when the winner was announced and to sense their enthusiasm and engagement; and it was particularly exciting to see Milkman by Anna Burns win, because I was rooting for her all along. 

Today’s publishers are well aware of how the digital environment has transformed every aspect of the book trade, from how books are written through to how they are sold, read and reviewed. But University English departments do not tend to change quickly, and most are only just beginning to work out how to incorporate ‘digital’ into traditional programmes of study.  This new module is a first attempt to combine an analysis of what has happened in the book trade with literary analysis. 

Year on year, the Man Booker prize generates huge public interest in literary fiction.  It has a dedicated following on YouTube, Twitter and GoodReads.  Thus anyone who wishes to study a Man Booker title will have to engage with these platforms, which have become genuine and important primary sources in what feels like the blink of an eye.  Blogging and vlogging are also changing the medium of literary criticism.  Where it was once only possible to publish literary commentary in a newspaper, journal or book, it is now the case that literary opinion makers take to the net. 

Vlogging is a particular draw for students who are digital natives.  But there is a real skillset involved in making the ‘home-made’ and spontaneous video, and a ‘talking head’ recording an immediate view on a particular title is a particular genre.  Working out how to teach this skill is its own pedagogic challenge, but one I have risen to by making a set of videos recording my views on each of this year’s Man Booker titles as I finished reading it.  If the quality of the powerpoints produced by my students for the awards evening is anything to go by, I have no doubt that they will be better than me at making innovative and interesting ‘literary’ videos. 

I am also keen that the students analyse and participate in the world of online book reviewing, social media, and blogging, and I would like them to be able to historicise those developments, which are new and transformative.  In this respect the focus on this year’s Man Booker longlist provides a useful anchor in what might otherwise be a bewildering voyage. On they have studied the reviews and ratings for all 13 of the longlisted authors, noting that Normal People by Sally Rooney had the highest rating of all (4.34/5), a position closely followed by The Overstory by Richards Powers (4.29/5).

They have spotted Margaret Atwood’s tweet endorsing Sophie Macintosh (longlisted for The Water Cure) and Daisy Johnson’s ‘pinned’ response to the announcement that Everything Under had made it to the shortlist (‘oh god oh god oh god oh god.’)  They have also noted the critical significance of author websites, including those of Powers, and Guy Gunaratne, who was longlisted this year for In Our Mad and Furious City, a book which was promoted by Tinder Press with a beautifully modish short trailer, much to my students’ delight. 

One student commented that the module had made her aware of "what the internet does for authors and the book community.  I’ve grown up with the internet.  Now I realise that it has created this pressure on authors to build an online profile and engage."

"Digital media permit … lively interaction with readerships and the chance to cultivate a highly nuanced authorial identity across multiple communication channels and with a frequency impossible by means of codex alone", writes Simone Murray.  Yet it remains the case that some authors have elected not to create a significant and public digital footprint.  Anna Burns, winner of this year’s prize with Milkman, her remarkable feminist Troubles narrative, was not widely known or read before being longlisted in July.  Nor was it possible to find out much about her, or her books, online.  There is no doubt that this digital absence will be quickly filled now, and that many contemporary readers will turn to the Audible version of Milkman, which captures the cadence, lyricism and humour of the novel’s protagonist quite exactly. 

Meanwhile, the very fact of Burns’s triumph ‘by means of codex alone’ serves as a potent reminder of how literary prizes such as the Man Booker can shape the experiences of authors and readers alike.