The Man Booker Prize has its imperfections, all of which are well rehearsed. Formidable members of the English-language literary establishment—Martin Amis, Colm Tóibín, and Nobel laureate Doris Lessing included—have never been honored with the Commonwealth of Nations’ premier literary award, due to be doled out anew Oct. 16. (The prize also covers Ireland and Zimbabwe.) Others have often been recognized for the wrong books. Amsterdam is a fine novel, but it would be difficult to make a case for it being the best Ian McEwan, above the also-nominated Atonement and On Chesil Beach. This year, Zadie Smith’s NW did not even make the long list.
The tendency to overlook notable authors notwithstanding, persistent carping about the Booker’s flaws only serves to obscure the prize’s merits. It has helped to launch the careers of those who have won for their début novels, including Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger and DBC Pierre for Vernon God Little. Moreover, it has publicized a number of excellent novels since its inception in 1969. Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was a superior work last year, and the Booker has also gone to, among others, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Midnight’s Children is an instructive case. It is undeniable that the Booker helped Rushdie get kind reviews in the upmarket press and elevated him further. His success, including winning the Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the Best of the Booker in 2008, begat a new generation of English-language novelists from the Indian subcontinent, including Adiga as well as Kiran Desai and Mohsin Hamid, whom have either been nominated for or have won the Booker.
The wide net the Booker casts over novelists from all across the Commonwealth has given color and light to the literary landscape not just of the U.K. but the U.S. The Booker gave kudos to novelists including V.S. Naipaul (In a Free State), J.M. Coetzee (Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace), and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things). Our bookstores would surely be more drab and austere in their absence or their relegation to the annals of world literature.
So while it is terribly easy to mock and deride literary prizes as frippery, gongs handed out by members of the elite to other establishmentarians, the Booker Prize continues to serve an important function when it comes to the selection and promotion of otherwise little-known and serious literature in the English language. It is this virtue that makes the Booker more essential than ever at a time when the publishing industry is evolving rapidly, pushed into change by the coming of the e-book and the undermining of the old methods of gatekeeping.
In an important article for The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier raised the necessary question of who ought to keep the gate in the new, digitized literary environment. While Amazon and Google often speak to the importance of openness and democratization, in reality “the promise of anarchy and equality” has been “swiftly usurped by the appetite for power and profit,” Wieseltier said. In other words, what we read—and thus, what becomes popular—is determined not by free will but by a tangle of complex and unintelligible codes and algorithms, which our self-published reviews, blog posts, and clicks feed off of.
Amazon, the particular target of Wieseltier’s polemic, is a case in point. It has done much to increase the availability and affordability of literature. But what we do or do not purchase is heavily guided not by our own actions but by suggestions and pointers from the website itself. We might be more likely to buy a book with a five- or four-star review than one with two. Yet rarely do we read the reviews to find their source and judge whether they are credible, and given the number of fake reviewers on Amazon, we really should do some vetting. Amazon also suggests other novels we might enjoy based upon our prior shopping habits, what other people who have bought that book have also put in their basket, and what is riding high in the chart at that time.
Wieseltier suggests that the old publishing world’s “incompetent gatekeeping” is hard to suffer, adding that the traditional model of publishing and reviewing makes mistakes. But he also chides the aims of the online arrivistes. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of the Amazon empire, speaks of “eliminating all the gatekeepers.” But in an Amazon-type environment, where what is good is largely determined by what is easy to read and easy to sell, has little room for innovation, pluralism, creativity, and challenge. It is difficult to imagine Amazon championing debut novels like Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse or English-language books by foreign authors like Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, both of which are nominated this year.
In a future without the Man Booker—also, the Somerset Maugham Award for young authors and the Orange Prize for Fiction for female writers, which has been rebranded as the Women’s Prize—a slew of excellent novels might go unrecognized and unsold. It is not that Amazon reviews are destructive, but rather that their unkempt, amateurish, and occasionally petty and reactionary nature only serve to highlight the importance of literary awards, which take an altogether more wise and considered approach in assessing a novel’s value.