Sam Jordison on the best and worst of the Booker Prize experience
October 23, 2019 8:05 AM   Subscribe

The Booker Prize (one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world) is pay-to-play, and that's not even the worst part, as the publisher of Lucy Ellmann's sprawling and singular Ducks, Newburyport tells us.
posted by Etrigan (41 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ugh. This is nauseating and sad.
posted by 41swans at 8:14 AM on October 23, 2019


A fascinating yet depressing read. Florence and Hirsch have wreaked their reputations.
posted by fallingbadgers at 8:52 AM on October 23, 2019


there's a free store in my community, an offshoot of its recycling depot, and off to one side is its library -- where the unwanted books tend to pile up. Lots of crap. Occasional treasures. Anyway, the other day I overheard two people talking behind one of the stacks.

"It says it's a Booker Prize winner."
"Oh God, I never read those."

I laughed. Not that I really agree, because a quick perusal of past winners reveals a number of Booker acknowledged gems. Though I doubt I'd ever buy something just because it has their designation. It's still word of mouth for me ... and how it feels in my hand at that moment. Timing is sometimes everything.
posted by philip-random at 9:00 AM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


I have more trust in the Not the Booker Guardian prize than the actual Booker itself. None of this seems surprising. Which is doubly sad.
posted by Fizz at 9:12 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


What a strange article.

all this mess reflects badly on two fine and noble writers

It... really doesn't? On the judges, sure, but the writers?

Bernardine Evaristo was very gracious. But it was also impossible not to worry that she would henceforth have to live with questions over a shared win.

Only if guys like this keep banging on about how her and Atwood both winning make their wins somehow lesser or illegitimate, as if the Booker hasn't been jointly awarded before. She's still 'Booker Prize-winning author Bernadine Evaristo' (without an asterisk), regardless of the judges' inability to follow the current rules.

It felt especially wrong that Peter Florence had made it sound like four books on the shortlist weren’t worth fighting over. “We have two books that we can’t give up”, he had said. What did that make the rest? Disposable?

Is he really complaining that the judges thought some books were better than others? I thought that was rather the point of judging.

I still find it impossible to work out the maths that made five jurors unable to vote on the outcome

One or more judges being unable to decide. Obviously.
posted by inire at 9:12 AM on October 23, 2019 [15 favorites]


The sheer audacity of declaring that five voters had come to a tie.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:28 AM on October 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


I mean the Booker, not inire.

Deciding is their one job! It's wild to me that one of them presumably opted out.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:29 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I understand the significance of the complaint? It seems that there are two accusations here:

1) That the committee chose to split the award rather than give it to an individual book, which is against the rules of the competition

and 2) There is some evidence that the judges are using an author's career as part of their criteria instead of the individual book.

The gripes for #2 are eternal to all major awards programs, including the Booker, and it will usually valid.

It felt especially wrong that Peter Florence had made it sound like four books on the shortlist weren’t worth fighting over. “We have two books that we can’t give up”, he had said. What did that make the rest? Disposable?

That's a juvenile response to that statement.
posted by Think_Long at 9:32 AM on October 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


So what am I missing? Read the article and headline could be “human judges biased, imperfect” which isn’t really news.
posted by midmarch snowman at 9:32 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


Isn't the fundamental problem of these kind of prizes these kind of prizes per se. It seems absurd to have such high stakes snottery that in the end is just about commerce (or at least is so critical to commercial success) taken as having much more meaning than the branding of frozen yogurt and celebrity endorsement from Oprah in terms of "value."

There are so many books, and so many being written every hour that I simply cannot respect any of the book binding superlatives as being more then queasy dross. I guess I never really thought about literary prizes, (never really thought about them at all to be honest,) that way but now I do.

I don't know if it is apocryphal but the "Golden Globes" awards started as something of joke but now gets cited all the time. It makes you wonder how hard it is to become an authority conferring acclaim and even baseline legitimacy just by giving out prizes. It all seems like grifting, maybe some highbrow some lowbrow but essentially humbug.
posted by Pembquist at 9:34 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


I only have so much sympathy for anyone who loses out on an arts prize, and not just because I've lost out at so many in my time. I guess I've just really come HATE the very notion that arts should be competitive. Don't we get enough of that shit EVERYWHERE else? In fact, the non-competitiveness was a huge part of what drew me to them in the first place, having grown up in a resolutely jock family, attended a high school that cared more about football than pretty much anything else.

Fact is, there's nothing stopping me from reading all five books and deciding for myself, thanks.
posted by philip-random at 9:39 AM on October 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


If I paid five thousand pounds to enter a competition I'd also be pissed off if the judges clearly didn't follow the rules.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 9:40 AM on October 23, 2019 [24 favorites]


Awarding it based on career is basically saying "we are going to help this wealthy publisher and author sell more books because they've already sold a lot of books."

It's a big deal to publishers like Galley Beggars because their entire livelihood depends on something like this, and the Booker committee doesn't seem to be taking it as seriously as those who depend upon the outcome. I care about it, because I want to see presses that take risks on books rewarded, so that we are not left with publishers who only want to publish work similar to what sold successfully before.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:41 AM on October 23, 2019 [15 favorites]


I would be fascinated to know whether it was only one who couldn't decide, given Florence's reference to it being "our decision" to award the prize to both authors. Perhaps that was for the sake of preserving a veneer of collective responsibility for the decision.
posted by inire at 9:42 AM on October 23, 2019


If I paid five thousand pounds to enter a competition I'd also be pissed off if the judges clearly didn't follow the rules.

Yeah, this to me was the crux of the issue. I didn't realize you had to pay to play in the Booker.

If someone wants to give out an award and aren't scrupulously honest about how they decide to give out their money, oh well.

If someone wants to give out an award and requires a significant level of participation from contestants in promoting themselves and the award (and the award's sponsors) but they aren't scrupulously honest about how they decide to give out their money, that's kinda questionable.

If someone wants to give out an award, but you have to pay five thousand pounds to be considered and then they aren't scrupulously honest about how they decide to give out the money they got from the contestants in the first fucking place, then that's unacceptable.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:45 AM on October 23, 2019 [10 favorites]


This article comes off as sour grapes to me, and does Lucy Ellmann somewhat of a disservice. No one is owed a prize and being longlisted and then shortlisted for the Booker is not being “mistreated.” That doesn’t mean the other commentary here was wise—both Peter Florence and Afua Hirsch would have been smarter not to comment—but there is no objective way for human beings to award an artistic prize. It is subjective by definition. Pretending that jurors wouldn’t consider an author in full, even subconsciously, is silly, and so is getting huffy about a jury deciding to split a prize between two worthy authors!
posted by sallybrown at 9:46 AM on October 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


scrupulously honest about how they decide to give out the money

I think this is a laudable aim but impossible in reality unless the judges are doing blind readings (which would be fascinating in itself) or the judges' deliberations and reasoning are made public.

Judges will bring in their own baggage, opinions, preconceptions etc. about particular authors, their previous books (if any), public profile, prose styles, subject matter, etc. and are likely to take those into account (deliberately or not) regardless of what the rules say. They're just not normally so indiscreet as to publicise that fact.
posted by inire at 9:58 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


I didn't realize you had to pay to play in the Booker.

It's capitalism, all of life is pay to play.
posted by Fizz at 10:05 AM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


I'd have politely asked the Booker Foundation to refund my entry fee because they didn't follow the rules (the entry form explicitly states the prize cannot be divided) and only gone public with the complaint if they had refused. Also might ask them to reimburse the expense of the trip to the awards ceremony, which the rules require shortlisted nominees to attend.

If the Booker Foundation truly stands behind their conviction that the two winners were so worthy it was subjectively impossible to follow the rules and choose between them, they should have no problem refunding everyone's entry fees and travel expenses.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 10:09 AM on October 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


If someone wants to give out an award, but you have to pay five thousand pounds to be considered and then they aren't scrupulously honest about how they decide to give out the money they got from the contestants in the first fucking place, then that's unacceptable.

And possibly legally actionable - contestants paid to enter a contest with a specific set of rules. If those weren't the rules being followed, that's fraud.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:18 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


The sheer audacity of declaring that five voters had come to a tie.

You get 2 people voting for one book, 2 people voting for another, last person voting for a third? I don't really know how the Booker works (nor apparently do the judges), and all the details about how MUCH you have to pay to get on the shortlist amaze me, but it does give a fair bit of advertising.

I wonder if the fraud really can be argued in court.
posted by jeather at 10:20 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the fraud really can be argued in court.

They entered a competition. The competition had rules. The judges publicly admitted ignoring those rules to favor other entrants.

It seems clear-cut that it can be argued, and it's just a question of whether it's worth the cost and effort of bringing the case to trial.
posted by explosion at 10:25 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


It seems clear-cut that it can be argued, and it's just a question of whether it's worth the cost and effort of bringing the case to trial.

I'm pretty sure the cost would be getting blackballed in the world of publishing etc.
posted by Pembquist at 10:27 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


that's fraud

It's not.

I wonder if the fraud really can be argued in court.

It can't.

It seems clear-cut that it can be argued

It isn't.

Maybe there's some other cause of action (civil at best, no way this is criminal), but fraud is a non-starter.
posted by inire at 10:28 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


I would love to read a follow-up piece that goes into great detail on the publicity effort a publisher thinks is necessary to have a shot at the Booker, or that’s required by the rules of the Booker, because that’s what seems like a clear-cut problem here, not the choice between six very talented writers. But I also think most of us realize as adults that the books we hear the most about (even the literary superstars) and the best books we’ve ever read aren’t the same thing. I wish it was different because it doesn’t seem fair. But that part is much bigger than just the Booker.
posted by sallybrown at 10:34 AM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


I realize that problems judging, or a loose approach to the rules, doesn't invalidate the quality of past winners, but boy does this feel like a little stab in the heart, because some of my favorite books have been either winners or shortlisted over the years, and it's one of the few prizes I really look at when I'm looking for new fiction to read. Going back through that list of winners that philip-random linked to, I can't help smiling at seeing some of these old favorites popping up.

On the other hand, I don't know that this piece really serves Ellmann. She didn't win, and it sounds like even if the rules had been strictly followed, she wouldn't have won; maybe she's fine with the piece having been written, but...god, it's a little like having your dad stand up at the talent at school and demand that the judges let you get back on stage and tap-dance. I was just as surprised to hear they weren't enlisting the help of a bigger publishing house to help. If you're a small enough publisher that you're using your home as an increasingly-crowded warehouse, and your author is skyrocketing to literary fame...maybe it's time to ask for help?
posted by mittens at 10:47 AM on October 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


> "The Booker Prize (one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world) is pay-to-play, and that's not even the worst part"

No, that actually is the worst part.
posted by kyrademon at 11:41 AM on October 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


I can't find the exact quote, but Truman Capote said something to the effect of that he thought literary prizes didn't mean anything, but he still wanted all of them, which seems about right to me.
posted by FencingGal at 11:55 AM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


maybe it's time to ask for help?

I don't think help was really what was being offered. The larger publishers wanted to buy the rights to publish the novel under their own imprint and ride the judging process out to line their own pockets. They weren't offering to assist, they were offering to take over.

I believe a similar thing happened with Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, which was first published by Unbound using crowdfunding. It was Long-listed for the Booker and then published by Gray Wolf, publisher of other Booker favorites The Milkman, Lanny, Everything Under, and others.

There's nothing wrong with this scenario -- it puts money in the pocket of the original publisher and probably gets the author out to a wider audience, but I don't see a problem with the original publisher not wanting to go that route.

This type of scenario is much more common in the music industry, where a band releases records on indie labels until a major steps in after the hard work of establishing a following is already done. See: The Flaming Lips, Butthole Surfers, and, literally, countless others.
posted by dobbs at 12:17 PM on October 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


Ron Charles Washington Post take.

"In the end, we refused to comply."

Which being case, the organizers might have threatened to go nuclear. Of course, no one wins a nuclear war, and yes, I know, the rules say - oh irony! - that the Booker cannot be withheld. So, on to Plan B - two books on offer. Let the organizers toss a coin. Problem solved.
posted by BWA at 12:27 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


From BWA's "go nuclear" link, I feel the following paragraph should be etched in the next gold record we send out of the solar system:
The UK’s only prize rewarding comic fiction for adults is traditionally presented to the winner at the Hay Festival later this month and includes a case of Bollinger Special Cuvée, a jeroboam of Bollinger, a complete set of Wodehouse's books (99 titles) and a rare breed pig named after the winning novel. With none of these awarded in 2018, next year will be a rollover year, with the 2019 winner receiving a methuselah of Bollinger, equivalent to eight standard bottles, and a particularly large rare breed pig named after their winning novel.
posted by Etrigan at 12:44 PM on October 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


So, this is why I've never won.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:17 PM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


I know the provenance, but even still the mighty internal dissonance of the phrase Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse is delightful.
posted by chavenet at 1:35 PM on October 23, 2019


Etrigan: "I feel the following paragraph should be etched in the next gold record we send out of the solar system:"

Or at least onto the oversized pig.
posted by chavenet at 1:35 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


With none of these awarded in 2018, next year will be a rollover year, with the 2019 winner receiving a methuselah of Bollinger, equivalent to eight standard bottles, and a particularly large rare breed pig named after their winning novel.

Obviously it should include two sets of Wodehouse and two pigs, one of them nameless. What an oversight.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:09 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


The Booker Prize people seem way too enamored of writers like Ian McEwan (the Coldplay of literature) for me to invest too much in their opinion. Ducks, Newburyport is sprawling, difficult and weird (and pretty good, so far, but i’m a ways out from finishing it). I would have been frankly shocked if it had won.
posted by thivaia at 2:21 PM on October 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


Sick burn on McEwan!
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 3:39 PM on October 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


I want to burn Amazon (the company) to the ground, but I am still grateful for their "Look Inside...", which almost daily for me reinforces the fact that modern "literature" is a fraud and a racket.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:52 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


thivaia, you may be interested in following the Goldsmiths prize or the Republic of Consciousness prize.

Since I'm in the US, these prizes mostly frustrate me because the books aren't usually published here until a year later. The Best Translated Book Award at least is based around American pub dates.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:05 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


Realising I wasn't sure of my facts, I checked the Wikipedia page: I'd wondered whether anything had changed since it was opened up to U.S. authors, but apparently not - in 2001:
AL Kennedy branded the award "a pile of crooked nonsense". The winner, she said, was invariably determined by "who knows who, who's sleeping with who, who's selling drugs to who, who's married to who, whose turn it is". Nor was she content with rubbishing the prize; her fellow panellists in 1996 got it in the neck too. "I read the 300 novels and no other bastard [on the panel] did."
(Article contradicts the quote, but I like the quote, so I'm going with it. These are my own low journalistic standards.)
posted by Grangousier at 5:40 AM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


"who knows who, who's sleeping with who, who's selling drugs to who, who's married to who, whose turn it is"

... which speaks to almost every arts award I'm aware of. Assuming you believe the aggrieved. The fun part is often the year after the incestuousness of the process gets so egregious that they go out of their way to be "fair" ... and often as not end up awarding someone so obscure that all the insiders rise up and revolt and back to S.O.B. (Standard Operation Bullshit).
posted by philip-random at 8:05 AM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


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