This year’s Man Booker shortlist, just announced, features two Britons, two Americans, one Jamaican and a Nigerian (four men and two women) and has been applauded for its diversity. Some of those considered frontrunners – such as Pulitzer winner Marilynne Robinson and former winner Anne Enright – were overtaken by new writers.
The listed novels certainly comprise an eclectic and exciting mix. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is a tale of gang violence in Jamaica and the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Then there’s UK author Tom McCarthey’s Satin Island, a short but dense avant garde novel narrated by a “corporate anthropologist” called U. The 734 pages of American Hanya Yanagihara’s widely acclaimed A Little Life explore love and friendship between four middle-aged men in New York, whilst mediating on the trauma of child sexual abuse.
Literati the world over will now be pencilling the six down on to-read lists. At least one is sure to appear in your stocking this Christmas. The publishers of the happy few will have sent out new orders for vastly inflated print runs, anticipating the heightened demand.
And herein lies the reason why we have the prize. It is the publisher’s answer to the persistent grumble that fiction is in its death throes, something that has been a regular and common strand to accompany this art form for the past couple of centuries, but more prevalent with the rise in digital publishing.
While the argument today is couched in new terms – and the fear of the digital creating or sustaining substantial change is a hallmark of debates across a number of fields – the questions raised just aren’t particularly new in terms of fiction.
The floodgates are open
There’s the concern that digital publishing is wary of opening the floodgates – everyone can publish! There are no safeguards in terms of quality! How will we know what is a “good” thing to read anymore!
We’ve been here before. Women writing novels? Indeed, anyone not a part of a male and white establishment writing novels? More books published in a year than might be read (a real concern in the mid-19th century)? The concern about quality and how we can know what to read is paramount, and long standing.
There’s also the concern about how people read books. If people can dodge, duck, dip, and dive through the hundreds of thousands of pieces self-published each year online, how will the traditional form of The Book – with its contribution to understanding about the human condition (as agreed by the author, agent, editor and publisher), its lovely covers, its capacity to fit neatly in two hands, even its organisation into chapters – survive?
This debate is partly fuelled by traditional publishing houses who see the threat to their economic livelihood. But concerns about how The Book will survive are hardly new either. The shift from hardcover to paperback raised similar concerns, as did the impact of the penny dreadfuls in the late 19th century, and the marketing of books on train platforms by Penguin in the 1930s. While the contexts of the debate may have changed, what is at stake has not.
It’s no surprise that book prizes have exploded in quantity over the past 20 years.
The book prize assuages those fears that we won’t know what to read. A prize, even being longlisted, is a sign of a “good” novel. And a “serious” book prize, such as the Booker, is also a coup for publishers, leading to investment in print runs and therefore the physicality of text, with new cover design and art, re-printing on higher-quality paper, possibly a re-set with a more arty font. This then becomes an object to own and to display. The book prize, therefore, is a reification of the novel in its “proper” form.
But of course, such an idea about the “proper” form of the novel are by no means set. When J.M. Dent started his Everyman’s Library series in 1906, the front matter contained a quotation from a medieval morality play: “Everyman, I will go with thee, and be they guide.” In the play, the character of Everyman is given moral and intellectual sustenance from another character, Knowledge.
The purpose of the Everyman’s Library was to publish beautiful editions of classic texts. Here again are the same long-standing debates about The Book which are currently encapsulated in the book prize: the “good” novel’s purpose is both to look good on the shelf, and to act as a social commentary or moral guide. In both cases, this is about showing what you know, to others, and to yourself.
This year’s shortlist contains some established names and others who will be new to most. While the award of the Booker is of tremendous impact for the winner in any given year, both in terms of financial and cultural capital, the debates about what constitutes a “good” novel do not change substantially. This year’s shortlist will indubitably result in op-eds and reviews which lament the state of The Novel, and in the place of the book prize in contemporary culture. But this is nothing new – we’ve been here before, many times.
Stacy Gillis is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Newcastle University.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.