A year of Booker bust-ups and beleaguered booksellers: 2011 in review
By David Robson
For a few mad weeks in autumn, it looked as if literary Britain was going to be split down the middle, with novelist set against novelist and publisher against publisher. The Man Booker shortlist was announced, the judges waxed lyrical about the readability of the books they had chosen and, within days, a rival Literature Prize had emerged, almost as if the r-word had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Readable literature? Whatever next?
The mission statement of the new prize (“to establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence”) could not have been starker, nor could the tacit implication that the Man Booker had sold its soul, confusing art with showbusiness and enlisting politicians and celebrities as judges. The battle lines had been drawn and pundits rushed to the barricades, armed with their literary weapon of choice, be it Dickens or Proust, Joyce or Jane Austen.
It was a surreal debate, whichever side of the argument you were on. Imagine the cinema-going fraternity having a heated debate about whether films should be watchable. But it raised important questions and concentrated minds. Although the new Literature Prize is at an embryonic stage, still looking for a sponsor, its champions, including many leading publishers, are not going to go away. They have certainly challenged the Man Booker to look at itself in the mirror, which may be no bad thing.
The 2011 judges, chaired by Dame Stella Rimington, former head of M15, produced a flimsy, eccentric shortlist, with thrillers predominating. Was it just a lean year for fiction? Or were they guilty as charged of dumbing down the prize? Opinion was divided. It was hardly as if Jeffrey Archer or Maeve Binchy had made the list.
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