The Booker Bashing Backlash: Dame Stella Shaken and Stirred

on Friday, September 9, 2011
It might have earned me the quite humorous sobriquet of Comic Book Guy at my local bookstore, but I certainly wasn't alone in mounting the barricades and shouting "Worst. Shortist. Ever!" to anyone who cared to listen. The reaction to Tuesday's Booker announcement has ranged from furious condemnation to complete indifference, but hardly any support, so much so that the Dame done gone and spat the dummy at a recent industry party. Yep, chair of judges and former spy master Dame Stella Rimington, let fly at the unsuspecting (and unappreciative) audience saying, "Take it or leave it... Like it or not, we're very proud of it". Sure, sure. My parents said the same thing about my primary school efforts in the sporting arena. Didn't stop them being complete rubbish.

At least this little episode has added some colour to what otherwise has been a disappointing Booker year. And while I plonked the blame directly at her Royal Spyness's feet in a previous post, I kind of feel for her. After all, what exactly did the faceless puppeteers at Bookerland expect when they appointed the former head of MI5 as chair? It's not like she came with a false-bottomed suitcase full of literary bona fides. And therein lies the problem. Each year they appoint an entirely new team to pick the winner. Each year they try to use the appointment to garner excitement which, in the current cultural climate of celebrity mania, can only mean one thing. If it continues along this path, it won't be long before we see Keira Knightley or Kate Middleton getting tapped on the shoulder. Or Katie Price.

Judges aside, maybe I need to face the fact that the prize just ain't what it used to be. No longer is it a serious beacon of literature, pointing the way for those who might not otherwise read novels of that kind towards particularly worthwhile examples. No, these days it seems to have evolved into the gimpy cousin of Oprah's Book Club. Heck, they even put that awful Emma Donoghue book Room on the shortlist last year. Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with populist prizes but, as one commentator on the Guardian Books Podcast noted, that's what the Costa is for. Or countless other awards.

I guess we all have to be careful what we wish for. Team Booker wanted to give the prize wider appeal and ended up with a shortlist that belittles the most prestigious of English language literary prizes. I, on the other hand want it to go back to its more highly strung roots, but that recognise the danger in that too. Remember John Banville's The Sea? That was literary; highly literary. It was also a turgid pile of sludge, so difficult to wade through that I wanted to drown myself fifty pages in.

I've no idea how Team Booker intend to reconcile the populist vs literary conundrum in the future. Perhaps they should go fishing for someone who can sift through the white noise of culture; someone with a background in making sense of mixed signals and meaningless chatter. Someone, that is, with a background in intelligence. Come October I can think of one person who'll be looking for a job.


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