Reflections on the Point of the Booker Prize

by Joe Kennedy

At the heart of the Booker Prize, there lies a contradiction. The Prize is, with very few exceptions, awarded, and intended to be awarded, to a novel which undersigns the premises of a humanism by which we are all unique individuals possessed not only of depth but of multiple dimensionalities. Its recipients should give an image of the individual, bearing the full weight of its Shakespearean contrariness, in time. Yet the victors, along with most shortlisted works, are also commended on the grounds of the recognisability of the personal worlds they portray: it is not just that these fictions communicate unique experience, they make of a unique experience a generalisation about the human condition whose truth is commonly attestable.

Consider the case of Hilary Mantel, who has now won the Prize twice, in 2009 for Wolf Hall and in 2012 for Bring up the Bodies. Mantel is, at least in her Booker-winning guise, a historical novelist. That is, she writes books about events which the public can agree to denote as ‘historical’, an adjective defined simultaneously and deeply paradoxically as referring to something which is a closed case and to something which is a vigorous determinant of the present. The historical novelist has many choices regarding their content, and anything and anywhere from the Fertile Crescent at the dawn of complex society to the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper might be deemed fair game. However, they also make a meta-choice, which is whether they render the historical as deeply alien, inasmuch as it constitutes a moment in time when conditions of knowledge – the ‘epistemic’ rules, to break into Foucauldian for a moment – were radically unalike our own, or whether they depict it as essentially similar despite differences of dress, dialect, diet and constitutionality.

Mantel is an author of the latter persuasion, and this, rather than the more frequently cited argument about the contemporary popularity of the past, explains her fiction’s attractiveness to Booker judges. Her writing expects that particular forms of behaviour are transposable across time, that the incompatibility of the nascent individualism of the Tudor period with the digitally-dispersed subjectivity of ultra-late capitalism is but a superficial one. People, in other words, are people, and will continue to be people, and the real shock of the past is little more than an encounter with a mirror. We have never been Thomas Cromwell at his most manipulatively Machiavellian, but we can certainly grasp his deep motivations, because these motivations are those of ‘human nature’ and never go away.

So, the average Booker novel essays a dialectic: the uniqueness of experience and the absolute universality of experience. It is interested in the historical façade, so to speak, but it denies the radical account of history as a narrative of ideology’s power to shape subjectivity in itself to its particular needs at a given moment in time. Looking down the list of winners, the only novel which seems to buck this trend in an obvious way is John Berger’s G., which took the Prize in 1972 to the sound of a controversy which resonates to this day. G. fails to be seduced by this story about the stoic perseverance of Deep Humanity precisely because it is a novel about what historical subjectivity is, a novel about how subjectivity is effectively the consequence of a forgetting of historical particularity. We remember G. as a problematic winner because Berger chose to donate half of his winnings to the British Black Panthers; perhaps, though, the real sticking point from the modern perspective is that is simply not a Booker book.

This year’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, has recently been announced to the usual fanfare of media lit-chintz and sceptical lit-crit. The arguments this year have been about whether or not American authors (such as shortlistees Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler) should or should not have been considered. Booker arguments are nearly always a spectacle which diverts from the real interest of the Prize’s existential epistemology: two years ago, I attempted my own intervention the year the Booker allegedly 'went experimental' because Deborah Levy’s admittedly quite strange Swimming Home and Will Self’s drably, unexperimentally Joycean Umbrella were shortlisted. In retrospect, even that plea to deny the Prizes its play for avant-garde credibility seems a pretty naïve move, and treats it – as so often is the case – as a conspiracy with identifiable string-pullers.

It isn’t that, whatever it can positively be said to be. Since 2012, and perhaps even earlier, there has been a lobby from a self-appointed critical leftfield who have insisted (I suspect a little disingenuously) that the Booker should pay more attention to ‘adventurous’ fiction. Tom McCarthy – an enjoyably readable novelist who is only experimental until you read Thomas Pynchon – and Eimear McBride – an uncomfortably readable novelist who is only experimental until you read Samuel Beckett or Hélène Cixous – have been totemic for this worldview, as has the slightly more outré Levy. The belief at stake here would appear to be that the Booker represents a plot against experimental fiction, a kind of Bilderberg Convention devoted entirely to preventing writers who claim modernist affiliation from receiving the success they deserve. Then there’s the assertion that the Prize exists exclusively ‘to sell books’. This seems to me to be equally, if not more, underdeveloped – there are plenty of other ways for Ian McEwan to stay in the public eye, and if it’s about pure figures then Gone Girl and whatever this year’s Fifty Shades of Grey is will keep the publishing industry’s head above water for a while yet.

What’s more uncomfortable is that the Booker, and arguably never more so than when we appeal to it to be different, is simply a reflection of our deeply held, historicisable assumption that we are at once absolutely specific and not at all specific, that we leave a inimitable impression on earth but that this occurs within a context of overall human immutability. The inverse possibility, by which we do very little that is unique within the context of an absolutely historical and historicisable spectrum of possibility, is anathema to the ideology of the Prize and of the culture of liberal prize-giving tout court.