Should the Booker be enjoyable?

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The Booker long list has been subjected to a lot of criticism this year. I was under the impression that it gets attacked every year, but a bit of research revealed that people may get upset that a favourite book hasn’t made the cut (eg Solar in 2010) or criticise the inclusion of an individual book (eg Me Cheeta in 2009) but they don’t seem to attack the entire list in the way they have this year.

When announced this week, the general reaction was bemusement, both by its inclusions and its omissions. Telegraph 2011

Much has been made of the fact that several of the judges have written thrillers in the past:

This Booker prize is too much of a thriller. Guardian 2011

But the long list doesn’t include anything I’d recognise as a thriller. In fact I wish that a complex, multi-layered thriller had made the cut as I haven’t been thrilled by anything I’ve read on the long list so far this year.

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Mainstream Choices

I think the main reason people are upset about the 2011 long list is because many of the choices lack any “literary” element. The judges have a more populist taste than in previous years and chair of the judges, Stella Rimington, admitted on Radio 4’s Front Row, that their aim was to choose books:

“that people would both read and enjoy reading”

This sounds like a good plan, but the problem is that the publishers won’t have submitted their most enjoyable, readable books. The Booker is about finding the best quality books published each year - the ones that will stand the test of time and reveal more with each re-read.

Waverton Good Read Award

If you want to find the best fiction of the year, the perfect book to take away on holiday with you this Summer, then I highly recommend browsing the selections made by the Waverton Good Read Award. This award is judged by a whole community of ordinary readers and year after year they select a wonderful range of intelligent, but gripping reads. They haven’t put a foot wrong with their 2011 short list and the only book I hadn’t heard of (The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell) has just gone straight on my wish list. The point is that none of these books are likely to have been submitted for the Booker and so they will have been looking for enjoyable books amongst a pile of miserable, but worthy selections.

What should the Booker do?

The Booker should provide lots of food for thought. The long list should be packed with books that question the way we see the world, create lively debate and have so many layers that Professors can spend years analysing every paragraph. I’ve attempted to read half the long list and so far the greatest success has only managed to mildly entertain me. I hope that the remaining books have more depth and that they can select a winning book that does more than just entertain the reader for a few days on their Summer holiday.

Do you think the Booker should be enjoyable?


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26 Comments

  1. Stujallen says:

    I think the fact that obvious boomer books have missed cut us what shocked most people , end of day it is a liteary prize not a thriller or western prize so the fact some books have made list is strange I like fact small press have made it that is great and last couple have been mainly the large publishers I ve read two so fat have a third on tbr but that may be my reading for time being to shortlist .maybe booker needs to move on according to judges this year but I have enjoyed a lot of books from previous years so disagree with that argument .all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I agree that it is great to see so many small presses on the Booker list, but don’t see any reason why genre books shouldn’t be included – if they have the relevant literary element.

      I also take your point about enjoying previous winners. I have enjoyed many previous winners, but for me that enjoyment came from being stretched and educated rather than entertained. I was very entertained by The Radleys, but I would never suggest that it go forward for the Booker. There needs to be more than entertainment in the choices and I’m not really seeing that so far.

  2. sakura says:

    As long as the books are well-written and have some sort of a profound effect on you, it’s fine. I’m not really a big fan of awards that just go to big or established names just because they are famous rather than the quality of their prose. In the end, the publishers decide which books to submit and the judges decided from that pool of books so it’s not really a fair and equal process. But a very interesting post, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sakura, I think that “profound effect” is a good way of putting it. The Booker should select books that are memorable and have a real impact on the reader.

      I also agree about the problems with the way the Booker has a positive bias towards authors who have been nominated before….but that is a whole other post ;-)

  3. litlove says:

    I don’t know, it seems to me that in the past decade or so, all the media interest in the Booker has focussed on how the choices made are wrong. Because it’s the best-known of the literary prizes (Costa, ex-Whitbread a closely run second) it’s like it has to be held up as having made the most mistakes to be worth a story. The disagreements in the press just come earlier and earlier in the process. Philip Hensher in particular always strikes me as a provocative journalist and not in a good way. I don’t recall an article of his I’ve read where he’s actually liked something.

    I’ve always considered the Booker to be the prize that goes to a literary book that is also a pretty good read (sometimes surprisingly). Anita Brookner, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, these are the sorts of authors who do have literary pretensions, but it’s clear that you don’t need a degree to read them. If anything’s wrong with the long list (and I can’t really comment, having read none of the books on it), I’d wonder if it was due to the anti-literary nature of what’s been accepted for publication these days. Publishing is in such dire straits that it seems only the big names get their books out – or else it has to be small indie presses publishing the quirky narratives they like. It’s quite possible (although up for argument) that the best authors don’t try to place their books with the small indies.

    One last thing, Jackie, the link to the Telegraph article doesn’t work for me. Don’t know why!

    1. Jackie says:

      litlove,
      “all the media interest in the Booker has focussed on how the choices made are wrong.” That is what I assumed too. I was going to write an article about how it didn’t matter what the judges did there would always be criticism, but when I started to research the commentary from previous years I discovered that it was, on the whole, positive. Perhaps we just remember the angry debates and forget the 95% of articles that are nice?

      I agree that the Booker should ideally reward books that are literary AND readable. It is a shame that they seem to go from one extreme to the other. :-(

      Thanks for pointing out my dodgy link – it had an extra full stop in the link. Now removed. Thank you!

      1. litlove says:

        How about that! It’s true – I must be remembering the bad stuff and forgetting the good! :)

        And that’s great about the link – I’m looking forward to reading the article.

  4. Annabel says:

    Who was it who said ‘All publicity is good publicity’ – well until we get fed up of it all at least. I rather like the fact that the different judges bring different things to the list each year. I too always hope that the books will be literary and readable. I welcome the diversity be it quirky, genre or small publishers – good writing is what counts, and I am actually looking forward to it more this year!

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I agree that good writing should be the key and I do like the way every panel of judges will have a slightly different take on things, but I wonder how much guidance they are given about the type of books they should select? “Best” means so many things to different people, but I think the Booker should be looking for a specific kind of book and what I’d put on the Booker long list would be very different to my favourite reads of the year.

  5. I do think there’s a bit of elitism to the Booker Prize, but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. I do like to enjoy what I read, but I also like to be challenged. Personally, I expect Booker novels to be more challenging than enjoyable. (When the opposite is true, I’m pleased too!) I expect a certain caliber of literary prowess from Booker novelists, and I agree genres can fit this bill. I thoroughly enjoy mysteries, and I wish the great writers got more kudos. I think the reaction to the longlist has been interesting this year. There were so many surprises that people cannot possibly have had time to read them all and truly judge their merit, so perhaps that is why the discussion has veered toward the list as a whole. Truthfully, one can never know what books are submitted, so there will always be vigorous debate. With different judges each year, there will also be different personal preferences. Isn’t that the fun of reading? I will take the joyful experience of reading and discussion over unanimous decisions any day. We all are a product of both our personal experiences and our reading experiences, so it makes sense different books have different appeal to us and result in different estimations of quality and prize worth.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I agree about the challenging aspect. I don’t always like the Bookers, but I do expect to appreciate the quality. The Bookers I’ve read so far this year are not at all challenging. I wish we were able to know what was submitted and I’d especially like to have been a fly on the wall in their discussions.

  6. Steph says:

    I think it’s a mistake to assume that just because a book is layered/nuanced and literary that it can’t be enjoyable; the two are certainly not mutually exclusive, and it seems odd to me that the judges would be suggesting that is the case! I feel like books that are popular and that lots of people like and are fun and easy are books that tend to pop up on bestseller lists and top booksales charts. I’ve never been of the opinion in the past that the Booker was about bringing fun books to people, but rather about showcasing and rewarding books that are exceptional but might not otherwise get the audience and publicity they deserve. Doesn’t mean those books won’t be enjoyable, but I don’t know that we need to make the Booker prize more populist, personally.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph,
      “showcasing and rewarding books that are exceptional but might not otherwise get the audience and publicity they deserve.” That is the perfect mission statement for the Booker! I think many people are intimidated by the Booker and I don’t think it should be dumbed down to please them. The Booker should be all about the quality and finding books that will stand the test of time. I agree that ideally they’d be enjoyable, but this isn’t a priority. The Wilderness by S Harvey wasn’t enjoyable at all, but it did change my perception of the elderly and it challenged me and I still think about it years after reading it. That is much more appropriate for the Booker than something that makes me smile for a few hours, but is then forgettable.

  7. I’ve always thought that there is elitism in the booker and haven’t got on with a lot of them in the past. I don’t really know what to think of this years choices as I have never even heard of half of them. I have just finished Far To Go though (review coming tomorrow) and I loved it – one of the best this year for me!

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I look forward to seeing your review for Far to Go as I wasn’t that impressed by it. Hopefully you can change my mind about it. :-)

  8. NancyO says:

    I think all books should be enjoyable, but I guess I’ve always viewed the Booker Prize longlist as supposedly being representative of some the best books out there in the less-mainstream world of books. I’ve found some amazing authors and some I didn’t care for from the past longlists, so I suppose it all depends on one’s definition of enjoyable. I mean, I find translated crime fiction enjoyable, but it’s probably not representative of really good literature.

    Good question, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Nancy, Exactly! I love (some) translated crime fiction, but I’d be disappointed if most of it turned up on the Booker list. They have crime writing prizes for them and most crime fiction doesn’t have the literary depth I like to see in a Booker.

  9. Why is it that a book with true literary merit can’t be enjoyable?

    There’s enough ‘dumbing-down’ of popular “literature” through the proliference of thrillers, paranormal, gratuitous violence, and so on, that the Booker should maintain a higher standard. If that means less popular, that what it means.

    At least I should know that when I take the time to read a Booker listed publication, it won’t be a waste of said time.

    1. Jackie says:

      Debbie, I couldn’t agree more! Just a shame I have wasted my time on several Bookers in the past – not all are up to that exceptional standard. :-(

  10. P.S. Thanks for the link to the Waverton Good Read Award. Looks to be some very titles there.

    1. Jackie says:

      Debbie, Glad you found it useful! I might have to move to Waverton in my retirement – it sounds like a wonderful community!

  11. cbjames says:

    These days I spend much more time reading about the Booker prize than I do reading Booker prize books. I’ll be honest here, I tend not to enjoy them all that much. Personally, the books that make the short list and then lose are the ones I tend to like.

    So, you can put me down as yes the Booker winner should be enjoyable. Literature is first and foremost a form of entertainment, as far as I’m concerned. There are many ways it can entertain, of course: exciting plot, realistic characters with stories that move the reader, beautiful use of language, inventive literary style, etc. But at the end of the day, a book needs to entertain.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I tend to prefer the books that make the long list and then fail to make the short list – not sure what that subtle difference says about us!

  12. Amused says:

    What a great discussion. In the past I usually find half the books great, and books that I never would have read otherwise, and the other half I usually don’t really like. I need to pick it up and read some from this list.

    I am definitely going to check out that other reading list you recommend though! I love a good reading list.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amused, I have a mixed response to the Bookers too – I think universal love would be a bit odd, but I do like the way it introduces us to different book.

      I hope you enjoying browsing the Waverton site. :-)

  13. I think this year’s Booker has come under greater attack because of social media in all honesty. With facebook and twitter people feel its their rite to get the list that they want. The thing is that everyones list is subjective, I know Susan Hill is rather miffed at the inclusion of one book (title unknown, but comment made on twitter) in particular but occasionally a judge will be outvoted. Two of my fav books of the Green Carnation submissions in 2010 didnt make longlist, I sulked a bit but realised the prize is about a collective best book, or list of best books.

    I think readability should be very high and don’t see why prize winning and readability should be exclusive.

    I also don’t agree “the publishers won’t have submitted their most enjoyable, readable books” they should be, as those are the books they have the most faith in, and they know the judging panel before they send the books in, so that should have been a consideration for them.

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