Prizes are Political: A Conversation About Literary Prize-giving

by Review 31

A few days after the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize was announced, Review 31 invited four critics to discuss the politics of literary prize-giving. The panel was made up of Jonathan Barnes, Joe Kennedy, Sara Veale and Joanna Walsh. They discussed a range of issues including gender bias in the selection process; the relative marginalisation of experimental and genre fiction; the obstacles encountered by smaller presses wishing to submit their books for consideration; and the emergence of the ‘prize-winning novel’ as a genre in itself.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Jonathan Barnes: I thought I’d get a few different hares running to start off with and then we can draw the threads together. Firstly I thought I’d start with a couple of quotations. One is by Julian – no relation – Barnes, who I think pretty much hits the nail on the head when it comes to the Booker. He said the Booker Prize ‘drives publishers made with hope, booksellers mad with greed, judges mad with power, winners mad with pride, and losers – the unsuccessful shortlistees plus every other novelist in the country – mad with envy and disappointment. novelists had better conclude that the only sensible attitude to the Booker is to treat it as posh bingo.’ And you may remember it was that phrase that was picked out at the time.

And that, for me, pretty much seems to close the discussion off. So to open it up again, a quotation from the very fine English novelist DJ Taylor, who I interviewed last week. In preparation for this excellent event I thought I’d ask him a question about the Booker Prize and the fact that he has never won it – maybe a risky move, but I went for it and this is what he said:

‘There was a time when i though the Booker prize was worth having. It’s an absolutely classic example of taking something which works really well and ruining it for the sake of a bit of incidental trendiness. You have a longlist with what, six Americans on it. One is somehow less interested because it doesn’t seem to be for me any more. It’s for people teaching at East Coast Universities or Creative Writing tutors. I’m not being chauvinistic about it, but there is an entity called the British novel which is now being even more neglected because they’re letting all these Americans in. I can’t get very worried about that. There are a lot of things that I want to write about, and I’m very happy writing them. The thought that people might think that there’s a pecking order and that say Jonathan Coe is higher in it than I am doesn’t really worry me. Maybe if I just wrote novels I’d be completely neurotic about it, but that way madness lies. You write the stuff, and if people like it they do, and if they don’t they don’t, and so on you go.’

That last bit in particular strikes me as a very sensible attitude to the whole business of prizegiving.

I am a science fiction novelist, so my interest in prize giving comes from a genre perspective. My own view – and perhaps concern – is that prizes like the Booker, aside from providing plenty of marketing opportunities, also perhaps in some sense serve to limit the kind of books that are published at this level. In a sense the prize-winning novel – realist, writerly, a little oblique – is now a genre in itself. Certainly what for the purposes of this discussion today we may as well call genre fiction is completely and eternally excluded. And I wonder if this doesn’t introduce a certain insularity and even a certain generic politeness in the writing itself.

There is, is there not, a kind of orthodoxy at work here. Any panel after all which includes the wife of a Chancellor in 2015, or the wife of a former Prime Minister in 1976, is unlikely to break too many moulds. One feels the apparatus of it all churn on, providing perhaps the illusion of change, whilst actually remaining in perpetual stasis.

Sara Veale: It’s a really good time to have a discussion about literary prizes, not just because the Booker has recently been announced – and the Nobel Prize – but also because recently some data that came out pertaining to gender bias in literary prize-giving, and I think this is quite relevant to the discussion, not just in relation to the major prizes but in general, reading and what we expect from narratives and from authors. This data shows a preference towards not just male writers – 16 women in total have won the Booker in its 45-year history; it’s the same with prizes like the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize – but also looking specifically at not just who’s writing the books but who they’re writing about. It looks at who the protagonists are and what their gender is. It speaks to the broader bias within the industry about narratives that are about men.

Nicola Griffith, who is a British novelist, compiled data from the last 15 years. She started in 2000, she looked at all the major prizes and she noted down all the winners and their genders and also the genders of their protagonists and what she found was quite depressing: a very big bias towards male narratives. With this discussion in mind I noted down a few numbers: since 2000 six women have won the Booker, ten men have won it; 13 of those 16 books have male protagonists. So that means we have three books in the last 15 years where the protagonist is a woman. All three were written by women. To quote her article,

‘It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to literary prizes, the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women. Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy.’

It prompts a bigger question in prize giving and literature in general: why do we expect women to be able to write about men when we don’t necessarily hold men to the same standards? I think there’s a point to be made about this being part of a bigger bias. In literary fiction women are often seen as a special interest group; men are the default, we have special subsets of women’s fiction and special women’s prizes to redress the imbalance. Books by men are shortlisted at a higher rate.

Prizes have a huge influence on a writer’s career. It’s not just about the sales of the book but it can open up prospects for them beyond being just a novelist. A few months ago I don’t think that many people knew who Marlon James was; in the last week how many trend-pieces have we read about him and how many times his manuscript for his prize-winning was rejected and how crazy is that and, you know, what were those publishers thinking.

It’s not just the Booker; it’s not like we have a very good prize that is sort of above the rest, that does a very good job that we could look to. As Nicola Griffith’s data shows it’s very important to have this data on hand, like what’s being put forward for the prizes, what are the criteria, what can we do to raise the profile of female-led narratives.

Joanna Walsh: I look at prizes from several perspectives. I like prizes because I’m a writer, I don’t get paid much. I won a prize this year, it was great: it was three-hundred dollars, I was very excited. As an editor I’m very happy to see some of the people that I have published at 3:AM also go on to win prizes, including Owen Booth, and Martin McGuiness and who won severally the White Review Short Story prize and the Manchester Short Fiction prize. So it’s kind of interested to look, as Sara was saying, to look at prizes and think: what are prizes for? The Booker prize website says ‘It is a measure of quality of the original drafting that the main ambitions of the prize have not changed. The aim is to increase the reading of quality fiction to attract the “intelligent general audience”’ – for some reason the “intelligent general audience” is in scare quotes. The press release announcing the prize elaborated on this: ‘the real success will be a significant increase in sales of the winning book, which will be to some extent shared not only by the authors who have been shortlisted but also by authors all over the country.’ So there are two aims here and I’ll deal with them separately.

The first one is the idea of ‘quality fiction’ which is a kind of terrible little phrase; it sounds like a selection of rather sub-standard chocolates. The standard for good writing, as Sara has demonstrated, is not a fixed thing. It reflects cultural assumptions as well as the judges’ opinion of what the best book is that year. Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote recently, in the Bookseller, a very interesting piece after both the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize shortlists where announced. Eighteen books; one by a woman, from those entire two shortlists. One of these prizes, according to their website, wants to reward ‘audacious new work,’ the other one wants to offer ‘something for everyone’. Rentzenbrink wrote, ‘The cultural dominance of men is a self-fulfilling prophecy When I commission profile pieces for The Bookseller [where she is an editor] I have to intentionally concentrate on widening the net. I have to pay attention.’

So I’m interested in that idea of paying attention and asking whether prizes can and should pay attention to different areas. Are prizes political? My straight answer to that is, yes. I do think we live in a politically skewed world. We’re not playing on a level playing-field. I don’t know whether prizes alter markets, but certainly the Women’s Prize, which was founded in 1996 by Kate Mosse, was founded in direct response to shortlists and longlists on most prizes being, she says, ‘Regularly about 10% women, about 90% men,’ which is extraordinary when we look at the literary landscape today. We don’t see literary fiction – written in English – dominated by men to such an extent any more. It is obviously impossible to say for sure that initiatives like the Women’s Prize have directly caused the more general acceptance of women’s narratives and narratives by women; I hope so, I would say yes they have.

One of the things I have noticed is that a lot of the people who are doing this noticing in the publishing world, a lot of people who are noticing new kinds of narratives, whether it’s to do with an expansion of the idea of genre, the idea of what the novel can be, whether it’s more people from different backgrounds, of different genders, are small publishers, a lot of them working in translation, which is an area I’m personally very concerned with. I just wanted to talk a bit about what happens when a small publisher gets involved in a major prize like the Booker because it’s not an easy thing. The Booker is a prize for books which are published not only up to the announcement date but five months on from the announcement date so I think for the current Booker you have to submit by November, and your book might not be published until the following April.

‘if a book is published is published in print before the longlist is announced, the publisher must make the novel available for sale as an E-book [though the time-frame for that is not specified]. If it is only an E-book before the announcement, 1,000 print copies must be made available ten days after the announcement [of the longlist].’

This is a very very quick turnaround for a small publisher. ‘Even it is published after the announcement of the longlist, on publication there must be a minimum of 1,000 print copies available for retail sale.’ This is something that small publishers, indie publishers, might find quite difficult. I did speak informally this morning to one independent publisher whose book was long listed but not shortlisted for a recent prize, who said that they had factored in the idea of spending £10,000 on making things available and on publicity. Although they didn’t get beyond the long list, they had to make sure that everything was in place were they to be shortlisted.

It’s also interesting to look at what can be submitted to the Booker Prize. If you look at their rules it’s a bit confusing because currently if you look at their website it says there is no restriction on the number of submissions per publisher; but then on an another part of the website it says the number of novels a publisher can submit will depend on the publisher’s inclusion in the longlist from 2010 to 2014: you can only make one submission if you’ve had no previous longlisting. If you’ve had one or two longlistings in that period you can make two submissions; if you’ve had three or four longlistings you can make three submissions; if you’ve had five or more longlistings you can make four submissions. So a lot of small publishers, a lot of new initiatives, are not going to be able to make more than one submission. Although that is contradicted by other quote; I would like the Booker to clear this up. There’s a lack of clarity as to whether we’re talking imprints here or overall publishers.

One of the areas where I see a lot of new forms coming through – more exciting, more experimental forms – is literature in translation. And not coincidentally I think a lot of publishers publishing this stuff are also independents, publishers like And Other Stories and Tilted Axis. To go back to what Sara was saying about gender bias, unfortunately literature in translation has a huge gender bias: Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter Books, recently said in a piece that the piece was not 60/40: ‘I figured it would be a 60-40 [male-female] split, not 71-27. That’s brutal.’ I’m involved with several translators – Katy Derbyshire, Rachael McNicoll and a whole host of others – in trying to found a prize for fiction translated into English by women. So far, we have some financial support from the British Council.

I’m also interested in the changes to the International Man Booker. 2015 was the last year in which it was able to award a prize for a life’s work. Because of the expansion of the Man Booker Prize to include all works originally written in English, the Booker said ‘to close the circle’ they have decided to alter the focus of the International Man Booker Prize to a single book, very much like the main Man Booker Prize. This has created several problems: it means that it has merged with another prize which was dong excellent work in exactly that area, the International Foreign Fiction Prize.

I do think that this sole focus on the single book is not necessarily very helpful. If you’re awarding for a the scope of a writer’s entire work it allows for far more variation in that work, whereas if you’re awarding for a single book it’s that one book that’s going to have that general appeal which they talk about. Which I think makes the prize less exciting. I’m thinking of writers like César Aira, who was shortlisted for the International Man Booker, and who has published around 80 books over about 40 years, a lot of them very short, some of them very strange works, I’d love to see someone like him shortlisted for a prize whereas if you looked at any of his individual works I’m not sure they’d be shortlisted in quite the same way.

I think that the way that the Man Booker works, unfortunately, favours large publishers, it favours single blockbusters. I’d like to see a diversity in prizes, I’d like to see a lot of smaller prizes, like the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction; Galley Beggar set one up this year for short stories; I’d like to see more prizes, able to reward a much larger range of work.

Joe Kennedy: A little while ago I wrote a piece about the allegedly experimental Booker Prize in 2012, the year that Deborah Levy’s brilliant novel Swimming Home was shortlisted, as were novels by Ned Beauman and Will Self. I found myself more interested in talking about when John Berger won the prize in 1972. For those of you who don’t know, when John Berger won the prize for his novel, G, he got up on the podium and made a kind of non-acceptance speech because he took the money but only to redistribute half the money to the British Black Panthers and used the other half to fund a study into the conditions of Europe’s migrant workers. I wrote in my piece that it was one of the few ‘Fuck, yeah’ moments in British literary culture for 40 years or so. ‘Dame’ Rebecca West, as the Man Booker punctiliously calls her, stood up and walked out in protest; much as I’m a fan of Rebecca West’s travel writing I think there’s something indicative there.

I think it’s important that he made that gesture in relation to the particular novel which won the prize. I don’t know how many of you have read G. It’s brilliant. I read it as a retrospective study of – if you’ll excuse the hackneyed phrases – a crisis of bourgeois individualism in the early 20th century. It’s about a Don Juan figure going around having sexual conquests all over belle epoch Europe. And what Berger is getting at is the misrecognition that involves: that this is a protagonist who believes himself to be very free without in any sense having a perception of the social conditions that allow that freedom to happen. Berger is, very implicitly but also very cunningly, critical of this. To me this links into his gesture of giving the money away, because what he seems to be saying – to invoke Benjamin’s idea that there is no document of civilisation that’s not also a document of oppression – he was asking ‘What gives me the artistic freedom to write this? What structures underpin this prize?’ And of course Booker McConnell developed their initial capital in the immediate, still highly consequential, aftermath of the slave trade. So G is a novel which is a kind of critique of individualism and the freedom which that individualism seems to grant one.

But let’s look at how the Man Booker website, which is a real goldmine for anyone who’s interested in ideology critique, describes G:

‘John Berger relates the story of “G.,” a young man forging an energetic sexual career in Europe during the early years of the twentieth century. With profound compassion, Berger explores the hearts and minds of both men and women, and what happens during sex, to reveal the conditions of the Don Juan’s success: his essential loneliness, the quiet cumulation in each of his sexual experiences of all of those that precede it, the tenderness that infuses even the briefest of his encounters, and the way women experience their own extraordinariness through their moments with him. All of this Berger sets against the turbulent backdrop of Garibaldi and the failed revolution of Milanese workers in 1889, the Boer War, and the first flight across the Alps.’

What I hope you’re noticing there is the way that that précis of the novel places all these revolutionary situations into the background. Berger’s not using these things as a backdrop as far as I read his work. He’s making it the background is a kind of estrangement device: what he’s saying is it seems to be the background because it is actually the foreground. I’m going to link this in some jumpy or erratic way to some teaching experience I have. I worked at a university – I still work at a university but this is a different one. At this particular university I taught a module focused on literary prizes. I agreed to teach on that module because it sounded like an interesting opportunity to have a discussion about literary value. I thought we could have a discussion about why a prize awards money and prestige to certain novels and why it ignores certain other novels; it turned out that we didn’t have that discussion at all, because the lectures were all structured around discussions of the individual novels and treated them as discrete objects, which I thought was perhaps not the most interesting way to go about it but, you know, I wasn’t the module convenor and I was only an hourly-paid tutor at the time.

The novel which was chosen as representative of the Booker Prize – and I think in many ways it is representative of the Booker Prize – was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. This is a novel that I feel quite ambivalent about. I read it at A-Level which can colour one’s perception of a work of literature. To me it’s a very typical Booker novel inasmuch as its genre, if it has one, is historiographical metafiction. It’s a piece of fiction which tries to make a statement about how history is not a thing, it’s not something that should be reified in any way, it’s actually another form of narrative. There are quite a few Booker winners that have done this – they’ve told us that history is an extremely subjective experience. I’m kind of interested in why that mode of writing has become the go-to vehicle for liberal humanism. I think G by Berger is also a historical metafiction but it does it backwards: instead of insisting on the contingency of historical narrative what he’s insisting on is that we do have to have some for of explanatory metanarrative about what history is. The argument he seems to be making goes back to Kierkegaard: that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom; when we can do whatever we want we become anxious. It’s interesting for me that Berger’s novel made that argument whereas most Booker novels make the opposite argument - that history is this very subjective thing, everything’s relative.

I think it’s becoming clear now that I have a slightly biased sense of what the Booker does. I wrote a piece for Review 31 last year which argued that the real ideological work of the Booker Prize is to make a certain kind of individualism seem transhistorical, seem like something that has existed at any moment in history. It tries to ascribe present-day ideas about the uniqueness of the individual, about how we should cherish our individual identity, to any particular historical epoch. And I think that Hilary Mantel, for example, the way that she’s written about as a winner is quite interesting because what she’s always praised for is her ability to ‘bring the past to life,’ which is to say ‘make the past seem more like the present’, I think.

For me – and this goes back to what Sara and Joanna were saying – the real pressing issue with a discussion of the Booker is the way that a number of the novels which have won – I think particularly about Jacobson and about particularly John Banville’s The Sea, a novel I have a lot of problems with, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan – they come to represent humanism for the popular imagination. We take what they say about being human to apply to a more generalised humanism, when it’s obviously a very male type of humanism. I think that those novels – particularly McEwan’s Amsterdam – they’re novels which humanise a kind of male gaze. By contrast what Deborah Levy’s novel did which was really fantastic was it dehumanised all kinds of social relations: Swimming Home was so fascinating because it focused on objects, on the way social relations inhere in objects.

More generally, I have read the Marlon James novel [A Brief History of Seven Killings] and have enjoyed it. I think it’s visceral, emphatic and challenging, and I think it’s a novel that isn’t dealing in lofty male humanisms and I think that’s interesting; and I think the internationalisation of the prize is a really good thing.

JW: I’m very glad you mentioned Deborah Levy at the end because there’s a kind of problem with talking about this problem of male humanism purely through the prism of talking about these men who are writing the male humanism because, you know, then you never never never get out of it. I wrote something for Publishers Weekly recently, where I had to write about my own influences, and I talked about the writer Christine Brook-Rose. Though for a long time she said she felt she had had no disadvantage on account of being a woman experimental writer, she came to the eventual conclusion that women had been allowed to be seen to embroider on experimentalism but not create new forms. I responded to this by saying that for me, to experiment is female because it’s a rejection of the male-oriented forms I have been given. And that can be a problem when it comes to inclusion on prize lists. So again it’s this prismatic thing; it’s very difficult to get out of.

SV: And you have to think about who’s picking the prizes as well. I mean, are panels balanced? With the Booker it was two women and three men – it’s not equal, it’s not terribly unequal, but that’s where our biases come in in when you’re considering experimental fiction and what’s considered substantial and what’s considered insubstantial.

JK: There is a kind of categorical version of the experimental which women don’t seem to be allowed to participate in. They’re told that they can play around with it but they can’t innovate.

JW: Well that’s what Christine Brook-Rose said but again it may come back to a matter of subject as Sara said. There is a certain kind of experimental writing and there are certain subjects which are particularly associated with avant-garde writing and there are some which are particularly male. It is very difficult to write perhaps experimental fiction about, say, having babies. But of course Jenny Offill tried to do that, a few years ago, and other people have done it, like Lydia Davis, and Clarice Lispector. But the majority of experimental subject matter is just not on subjects that women – some women, not all women of course – might like to write about based on their own experience.

JK: Sounds a bit like the bind that Muriel Spark found herself in. No matter what she wrote throughout her career, will always be known as the Jean Brodie author, and yet she was one of the first genuine metafictional writers in English literature. The Comforters came out in 1957: technically it’s a really radical novel, but the way people choose to read it is I think a very naturalising way. And yet if a man comes out and writes that novel we go ‘Oh, experimental writing!’ To bring it back to the 2012 Booker, this question of what is experiment. I think Levy’s novel is really experimental, partly because on one level it doesn’t look experimental at all; it’s people going on holiday, it’s a holiday novel.

In the south of France, even.

JK: Yeah. I mean it’s almost a joke on the Booker novels that someone like Ballard satirised – the ‘Hampstead novel.' Compared to the novels that are put forward as really radical novels, it’s out-there.

JW: Who are you thinking of?

JK: A writer that I really enjoy reading and yet I think that his modernism is massively overstated, Tom McCarthy. People talk about him as this big hope for experimental fiction, and actually Levy is far more experimental than Tom McCarthy.

JW: Yes, agreed.

JB: Is there not something to say though, when you talk about experimentalism with these prizes, about the notion of compromise. That actually the stuff that we say is experimental – and I would agree that Tom McCarthy is actually very conventional in some ways – but you speak to people who’ve been on the judging panels for these prizes, and they tell you that very often it’s not the book they all agreed on, it’s compromise. Because the really strong flavours tend to get [something] out as the process plays out, which is why you end up with this kind of genre in itself, of prize-winning fiction

JK: And it is a genre, I think you’re absolutely right. You get a weak year some years and if somebody, Howard Jacobson-esque, submits a novel about a man and maybe things are happening to him and maybe he’s getting older as well, it’s a banker isn’t it? It wins.

JB: It’s also a prize that’s not a prize for a book, it’s a prize for a career.

SV: And that relates to what Joanna was criticising about the idea of focusing on a single book rather than a body of work because it’s bound up with lists full of books that resemble each other because they’re all trying to be of a wide enough appeal. You see that with this year’s Booker shortlist – it inherently has to become blander and blander. You see this longlist that might have quite a lot of different things on it, but by the time you get to the shortlist it’s the same old story. But then what does it even mean to be on the longlist? Is it just a gesture?

JK: Whereas when we look at the level of interest in other prizes like the Folio Prize and the Goldsmiths prize, there is obviously an appetite for the challenging, even if it’s not necessarily experimentally radical. Eimear McBride’s novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, was advertised on the side of buses in London. It did fantastically well. Again I think its experimentalism is to some extent overstated but it is a really challenging read. I think people want challenging reads.

JW: I think prizes are about niches, and I think increasingly publishing is about niches. We used to have publishing which was not online at all you just read a review in the newspapers, you went to WH Smiths or Borders or whatever, you didn’t buy things online. One of the exciting things about the fact that bookselling has gone online – although obviously there are many down sides – is the fact that wherever you are you can find your book community. You can find the books that you want to read, you can interact with other people about them, and you can get them delivered to you or you can download them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with publishing being niche - there are people who are going to want different things. One of the things I hate about big prizes is the idea that there’s a novel for everybody, I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think that that’s a very helpful way of thinking about literature at all. So I’m very happy to see a proliferation of smaller prizes like the Costa Prize and the Jerwood Prize. They’re rewarding different things.

Jonathan Barnes is the author of three novels: Cannnonbridge, The Somnambulist and The Domino Men. He regularly reviews fiction for the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review.

Joe Kennedy is a teaching fellow in English and cultural studies at Gothenburg University at Sussex. He has written for various publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Quietus.

Sara Veale is fiction reviews editor at Review 31, and a freelance arts writer for Auditorium, Fjord Review and others.

Joanna Walsh's books include Hotel, Vertigo, and Fractals. She reviews for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the National. She is fiction editor at 3:AM Magazine, and runs @read_women.