Why I ... think the Booker is relevant to the study of literature

October 17, 2003

Does the Booker Prize have any relevance to the academic study of literature? The answer is a complicated yes. Winning novels, and many shortlisted ones, constitute a chief part of the (non-US) legacy of literature in English since the prize was instituted in 1968. That means they will be perennials on the reading lists of the future, key to the study of English-language literature and in themselves concrete representations of the literary taste and judgement of their time.

A chicken-and-egg question arises, of course. Are these novels part of the future canon of English literature because the Booker found that they were so, or because it made them so? The balance lies with the latter because, in some cases, the sounder judgement of time will show that some of the choices were mistakes, usurping the place of more valuable works. Yet the mistakes will be remembered anyway, in order to be identified as such - and there will always be a PhD student willing to leap to their defence.

But there is a more interesting connection between the Booker and the contemporary academic study of literature. Rather few Booker judges have been literature academics, and those who were have also been that rather different animal, broadsheet book reviewers. With some confidence, I guess that they have worn their latter rather than former hats in performing their Booker duties. This is because the tasks that face academic study of literature, on the one hand, and book appreciation of the reviewing and prize-giving kinds, on the other, are significantly and intriguingly different. This can be summed up as Hazlitt v Coleridge.

"There is no greater critic than Hazlitt in any language," George Sainsbury said, "he is the critic's critic as Spenser is the poet's poet." He said this before the 20th-century turn to academic criticism, which - in opening and preserving a distance between "the world of journalism, where new literature is fostered or starved, and the world of scholarship, where old literature is interpreted and canonised" - concerns itself not with taste but with technique; not with the common readers' response to books and the connection of books with life as contemporarily lived but with methods and classifications, schools, unconscious influences, supposed hidden meanings, patriarchal oppressions, deconstruction of texts and multiple readings.

Hazlitt would - not wholly fairly - have been dismissive of this latter kind of endeavour. Literature, along with theatre, art and philosophy, was in his view a matter of immediate and practical moment to the experience of life, and therefore was to be encountered and evaluated along the pulses as well as with the intellect. The ideal equipment for his kind of critic is the well-judging, discerning, intelligent, eager and responsive sensibility that wants to know whether what it encounters is good of its kind, and adds value in its way.

The model Booker judge is Hazlittian and therefore what he or she is looking for falls into one category only: work of quality. It does not matter whether it is a tract for the times or an epic of eternal verities, a creature of current fashion, a throwback or the way of the future. It just has to be the best available. When the judging task is well conducted, it makes many kinds of difference - including a difference to the standards of writing and judging that follow.

Academic criticism seeks more, because its concerns are wider, and it rightly treats Parnassus as a plateau, not a peak. But eventually the two concerns coincide - when Booker winners move from media immediacy to the calm of the reading list. Academic criticism cannot dispense with the history of literature, and the Booker makes part of that history; perhaps the Booker's relation to the academy therefore is that of content to form.

A. C. Grayling
Booker judge
Lecturer in philosophy
Birkbeck College

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