Ahhh. Now I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. I’ve been so restrained. I’ve been good, honest guv, terribly good all these years (and not just out of fear of being accused of having a whole vineyard full of sour grapes) but it gets my goat, truly it does. Oh, go on then. I’ll probably feel better afterwards for a whole five minutes.
The Booker Prize. Like the Best Film Oscar, the Booker Prize – the Turner of the literary world. Supposedly, the best of the best. The classiest of the class. The – well, I would go on, but you get the point. You write, you’re supposed to aspire to it. It’s the big sticky label that gets slapped on your dust jacket that says I AM SOMEONE in big letters (or might as well).
I wanted to be a Booker Prize winner, when I was younger and still impressed more readily by the lies stickers on dust jackets tell.
(Except those ones that say “Richard and Judy Book Club”. Those ones are pretty self-explanatory and absolutely true. In other words, you have been warned.)
But now I don’t. Ever. And the reason is two-fold. Settle in and I’ll bore you with it.
Firstly, there are no fairies at the bottom of the Booker. In other words, the Booker Prize and the Best Film Oscar have something in common: they don’t really go to science fiction or fantasy creations. I remember hearing belatedly that The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King had scooped a few gongs at Oscar time that year and amused myself a great deal by imagining the judging panel having a minor crisis in their hallowed halls:
“What? Oh shit, the thing’s really popular. If we don’t give it something, our secret hatred of all things phantasmagorical will be out. Quick, pile a heap of awards on the last film in the trilogy before someone catches on, despite the fact that the other two films were brilliant too and we ignored them completely because they had elves in.”
Secondly, in order to be nominated for or indeed win the Booker Prize, you apparently have to spend at least a year locked in a room with a coven of manic-depressives from a number of different cultures, listening to them tell you all the real or imagined horrors that have occurred in their lives while you also watch Eastenders and the History Channel on constant loop.
Then you write down whatever words make it out of the gibbering, rapidly liquifying remains of your brain, arrange them into a plot which incorporates at least six of the things you’ve heard during your time in that room, and give it either an obtusely bland or a totally unrelated title.
No, really, it’ll work. Don’t believe me? Then please do enjoy here the summaries of three of the Booker shortlist this year:
- Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil. Charting the changes within society in Bombay through the effect they have on the city’s opium addicts.
- The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng. Set during the Japanese Occupation, the story of a garden created by a survivor of a prison camp in memory of a victim.
- The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore. A middle-aged man goes on a walking holiday in Germany after the death of his wife.
The Booker Prize, you see, (and it admits this openly) doesn’t exist to award the popular fiction, nor the fun fiction, nor the ground-breaking fiction. It seeks out those books that are a “real challenge”, that are self-confessedly hard to read and perhaps not even particularly enjoyable to read, but are apparently terribly rewarding in the long-term. How amazingly patronizing. “Gosh, look. We know it’s not a great book at first glance – awfully depressing, too – and 99% of the population would probably rather scoop out their own eyeballs with a melon-baller than try and get all the way through it, but we’re confident that the remaining 1%, who presumably only ever read anything in the hopes that someone else will see them reading it and be terribly impressed, will love it for YEARS.”
And personally, as both a writer and a reader, my books are my escape. If I wanted to read about ghastly things that have happened or are happening to human beings in the world I live in, I would read BBC News Online. If I wanted to write about them, I’d write soap opera scripts.
And if I ever get nominated for the Booker Prize (for which I’d actually have to write a novel, of course – there’s an insurmountable problem at the outset) I will personally go and fetch the melon-baller for you. Because I’m good like that.