A piece on the ‘Best of the Booker’ award in the 40th year of the prize

06/07/08, The Guardian

It’s the 40th year of the Booker Prize (now Man Booker, of course), so in keeping with the tradition of celebration dictated by arbitrary round numbers, there will be a one-off ‘Best of the Booker’ this year, quite separate from the annual award acknowledging literary excellence that will come around in October. In its 25th year, in 1993, the first ‘Booker of Bookers’ was awarded to the 1981 winner, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, by a jury comprising of three former chairmen of Booker judges – Malcolm Bradbury, David Holloway, and W.L. Webb. Things have acquired a more democratic patina since then, so we have a pre-selected shortlist of six on which the public can vote.

The pre-selection was done by a jury of three – Victoria Glendinning (chair), Mariella Frostrup, and John Mullan – and the books on the shortlist, all previous Booker winners, are: Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995), Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974), and, as if by default, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It is heartening to note that the jury decided to ignore the chatter contributed by those great arbiters of literary taste, William Hill and Ladbroke’s, and decide on proper, real books over Life of Pi and The English Patient. Or over the undistinguished, unexceptional books, now cast into dignified oblivion, from the years of shame: The Bone People, The Famished Road, The Old Devils, Hotel du Lac

Since listmania is the dominant cultural currency of our times – Greatest Book, Greatest Briton, Greatest Cake, Greatest Lyricist, Greatest Sock in the Eye – and all our thoughts have been directed to bringing everything to the level of Premier League, let us ask ourselves a few questions. It is possible to judge football by objective standards – there are rules of the game, after all – but not things such as books or poetry that demand a subtler, more critically informed, more nuanced, more subjective appreciation. The cultural relativism so fashionable now would aver that on the central principle of ‘to each his own’, each judgement is as valid as the other, so if I contend that Disgrace is an infinitely better book than Midnight’s Children and you maintain exactly the opposite, we’re both right and, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, everyone has won and everyone shall have prizes.

Why have the public been asked to vote on a literary award? The bestseller charts, a sure indicator of public taste, tell us with relentless frequency that Marian Keyes or Jeffrey Archer is a better author, by some dizzying six-figure sum, both in numbers of copies and money, than, say, J.M. Coetzee or Patrick White. Are they right? Is this the normative standard of judging a literary work, the number of voices shouting and chanting ‘Oggy, oggy, oggy, oi, oi, oi’ behind it? And what happened when the public was asked to vote for the Greatest Briton Ever? They chose Diana. Over Newton or Darwin. I suppose in the public mind looking coyly beautiful in posh frocks, while chundering out sick lines such as ‘From the beginning, there were three of us in this marriage’, is a far greater achievement than calculus or the theory of evolution.

It is my belief that these silly performances of inclusion and participation (lists, public voting on literature and ‘Greatest Britons’) are cultural illusions to make everyone think that we are indeed truly democratic – see, everyone can vote on everything, hurrah! – and, therefore, take our eye off the real ball, which is true participation in the political process that is democracy. Over the last decade we have seen a steady erosion of democracy, of civil liberties, a steep increase in the public sense of being excluded out of most things that concern our lives. Representative democracy has brought us an increasingly dismaying and disempowering sense that we matter, very briefly, once every four years, then it’s business as usual. How much concern was there for the ‘people’s will’ during the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq or the 42-day detention without trial? How much of ‘the people have spoken’ is taken into account in these mockeries of public consultations about new airports and new runways and ‘modernisation’ of the NHS? Toys such as public voting for Best of the Booker fosters the illusion that we’re players, we have a say about Things that Matter. No, we don’t.