Read 'em and weep

Consuming Fictions
October 18, 1996

It may be an exaggeration to say that Britain is awash with literary prizes, but there are enough of them around to make the less favoured branches of the arts eye them with envy. A glance at the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook shows what an astonishing array is on offer. Over 25 pages are devoted to the literary prizes and awards section, each page carrying half-a-dozen or more entries. Factual works are not excluded, but fiction predominates: there are awards to first novels, second novels, historical novels, romantic novels, even unpublished novels (postmen beware).

The list of sponsors is just as varied, ranging from food manufacturers and brewers to newspaper groups and heiresses. One wonders what draws such a disparate group to vie with each other, at not inconsiderable expense, for a share of the literary limelight. Perhaps a spirit of pure altruism is stirring in the corridors of commerce, but cynics are more likely to see the hand of public relations at work behind the scenes. Whatever the answer, there is no doubting that today's "prize culture'', as the author of this book, Richard Todd, describes it, has had repercussions on the publishing industry beyond anything originally expected.

The Booker, first awarded in 1969, is by no means the oldest of the available prizes or (at Pounds 20,000) the most valuable in cash terms. (The Nobel Prize for Literature, although infrequently won by British writers, looms like Everest over the scene, its estimated worth being between Pounds 600,000 and Pounds 900,000. Compared with this, all other awards belong on the lower slopes of Box Hill.) But the Booker has managed to attract more interest than the rest, even though the latter includes such respected and coveted awards as the Whitbread, the Hawthornden and the James Tait Black. Thanks largely to press and television coverage, many people who seldom or never read novels of an intellectually challenging kind have become aware of the Booker's link with literary fiction. They may even take a passing interest in the choice of winner, particularly in the years when reports of a clash of personalities behind the scenes add spice to the gossip columns. But the writing merits of rival candidates are unlikely to be the subject of heated debate on the Clapham omnibus; a sense of direct involvement of the kind that, say, characterises a Wembley cup final is missing. Publishing tends to give the impression of being a self-contained world that resents intruders, a feeling enhanced each year by the spectacle of the rather grand Booker awards dinner at Guildhall - in a televised programme that never seems quite at ease with itself.

No doubt it is difficult for people who earn their living in publishing to be frivolous at such an occasion. Much is at stake. The nominal value of the prize is only the first instalment of good fortune for the winner; the income from royalties usually starts to soar once the publicity springboard takes effect. Total sales figures for individual books seem hard to come by in publishing. (Todd, who received a British Academy grant towards his research, digs diligently in this field, but I still find his results confusing.) One important factor that cannot be missed, however, is the emergence of the "literary blockbuster", the novel of high quality which, with high-powered marketing support and pile-'em-high display techniques in the bookshop, ensures that the genre-fiction titles relying on crime, sci-fi and bedroom romance for mass appeal no longer have it all their own way.

A. S. Byatt's Possession, for example, of whose success Todd gives a positively rapturous account, won international acclaim and sold hundreds of thousands. Salman Rushdie scored with Midnight's Children, both in 1981 and again in 1993 when, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Booker Prize, it was chosen as the best of the previous winners. Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) grossed over Pounds 6 million in hardback and paperback within a year of the award. Even more commercially successful was Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark (United States title Schindler's List), which took the award in 1982. This had the benefit of a double bite at the cherry: the original paperback sold over 300,000 copies, and the subsequent tie-ins with the Spielberg movie a decade later raised the figure worldwide to millions.

The publishing revolution - for that is what the fundamental changes of recent years amount to - is not universally welcomed in all its detail. There are reservations in distinguished quarters about the underlying philosophy that drives the new approach. Writing in The Observer recently, Salman Rushdie latched onto the fact that 8,000 novels were published last year alone. "Eight thousand!'' he exclaimed. "It would be a miracle if 800 publishable novels had been written in a year. It would be extraordinary if 80 of them were good. It would be cause for universal celebration if eight of them - if one of them! - were great."

Publishers are overpublishing, he says, because "good editors have been fired or not replaced, and an obsession with turnover has replaced the ability to distinguish good books from bad I Readers unable to hack their way through the rainforest of junk fiction, made cynical by the debased language of hyperbole with which every book is garlanded, give up. They buy a couple of prizewinners a year, perhaps one or two books by writers whose names they recognise, and flee. Overpublishing and overhyping creates underreading."

Given the stress of involvement in publishing today, it is surprising that invitations to join the Booker judging panel are so readily accepted. The financial rewards are not a great inducement. Each judge receives Pounds 3,000, with an extra Pounds 500 for the chairperson. All five judges (including the chairman) will be expected to read 120 or more novels to arrive ultimately at the shortlist of six; this year's chairperson, Carmen Callil, reports having accounted for about 140. It is to be hoped that we will not soon be witnessing a new medical condition (Booker's eye?), recognisable by pink-rimmed lids, a nervous twitch and uncontrollable shaking whenever a bookshop window comes into view.

Although the Booker is given prominence on the cover of Todd's book, the larger part of the text is devoted to a scrupulously thorough reappraisal of the critical response to some of the most notable literary prizewinners. This is just as well, as the appetite for detail about the mechanics of literary prizegiving has its limits. For those hoping to carry off one of the prizes themselves, however, the book will be a uniquely handy guide.

Don Harker is former director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Author - Richard Todd
ISBN - 0 7475 2822 5
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £7.99
Pages - 256

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