Articles - 17th September 2019

Prized Culture

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

Inking in his 1987 LRB diary, the novelist Julian Barnes mused that, “the only sensible attitude to the Booker is to treat it as posh bingo.” Darting his quill hurriedly between paper and inkwell, Barnes concluded that the prize “Drives publishers mad with hope, booksellers mad with greed, judges mad with power, winners mad with pride, and losers – the unsuccessful shortlistees plus every other novelist in the country – mad with envy and disappointment.” Posh bingo it may be, but the Booker Prize (having recently liberated the Man, but not Men, from its organisation) is still an inimitable force in the world of bookselling, UK literary markets and exports. Last year’s winner, Anna Burns’ Milkman was a runaway success for its publishers, Faber and Faber, who saw sales rise over 1,000% after shortlisting last October. How I zealously hand-sold the paperback to the botheringly learned customers of a Hampstead bookshop, who respun the words of the prize’s chairman, Kwam Anthony Appiah, back to me as they compared the reading process to climbing a mountain. Behind the clouds of my sarcastic misanthropy, perhaps they had indeed climbed mountains and their confident assertions were earnest? “It is definitely worth persisting because the view is terrific when you get to the top” they cooed through thick, botoxed lips, jabbing at the soft pink cover with one hand and tightening the straps of their violin cases with the other.

Despite the best efforts of Ian ‘Cockroach’ McEwan and Stephen King (The Institute), this week’s cultural news has been dominated by the release of Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale with the Bookie’s Booker favourite- The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus). The book was launched globally at midnight on the 10th September, with Atwood flying into Europe’s largest bookshop, Waterstones’ flagship Piccadilly branch, coordinated by hooded-and-cloaked Booksellers, cocktails in the shade of nuclear sludge and cryptic placards, perfectly placed for Instagram envy-posting. The books themselves were printed at the Suffolk-based printers, Clays, and as senior production controller (Commander) Polly Collier admitted to The Bookseller, printing was strictly controlled in a separate area, with designated uniformed staff. “Staff throughout the process haven’t been able to read books on their lunch breaks or use their phones,” Collier admits, “They had to bring their packed lunches in clear bags.” Collier doesn’t specify what uniforms the staff of Clay’s printers were obligated to wear, I like to imagine them dejectedly dressed in scarlet habits, sleeves rolled up as they chain-smoke in their phone-free, fun-free breaks. 

Despite Vintage’s best efforts, the embargoed publication was dogged with scandal after Amazon mistakenly sent out copies to its pre-order customers a week before its official release. Whilst Nielsen are yet to publish their official sales, the company enjoyed a cool 3,400 + sales of The Handmaid’s Tale in the week leading up to publication. Alongside Atwood, this year’s shortlist also features a Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds, Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport and the only Man standing, Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte. Whether or not the Queen of feminist dystopian Sci-Fi is crowned victorious, yet again, on the 14th October, the surge of press and media attention to Atwood’s newest offering has undoubtedly played to the favour of her publishers, and to the Mr. Burns of UK bookselling, James Daunt. 

“People aren’t quite sure what it means when a book is a Booker Prize winner. They’re not quite sure what is being recommended, what literary values it stands for, because every year it stands for something different” says Nobel Prize and Booker winner, Kazuo Ishiguro. Whilst Booker’s Literary Director Gaby Wood calls the ‘collective brainpower and creative spirit’ of this year’s panel ‘stunning’ and their commitment to high-quality literature ‘boundless’, there is an unmistakably close relationship with many of the shortlistees and their judges. 2019 Booker judges include novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo and writer Afua Hirsch, pianist and composer Joanna MacGregor as well as renowned literary Hay Festival director Peter Florence and former editor and former fiction publisher for Rushdie and Atwood, Liz Calder. 

Prize giving is a futile act which bolsters the respective cultural industries and fosters intellectual mania. Yes, I am bitter because the only prize I ever received in school, and likely shall ever receive, was ‘Most Accident Prone’ at the Year 11 Prom for my insistence at wearing a plaster over my nose for the entire year after being threatened with expulsion for a spontaneous underage nose-piercing. The laminated certificate does not appear on my LinkedIn. The culture of literary prize-giving in the UK is surprisingly, a relatively new one. One of the nation’s oldest awards, the James Tait Black Prize was founded in 1919 by the widow of the eponymous prize, with the annual prize of £10,000, this year going to Olivia Laing for her Acker-inspired Crudo and Lindsey Hilsum for her biography of reporting warfare, In Extremis

Contrary to the sentiments of Mr. Worldwide, who once remarked that “My kids can’t eat awards,” the £50,000 Booker cheque is one of the steepest in the UK, and will afford the victor the equivalent of approximately 16,666 Tesco Meal Deals. It’s a shame that Pitbull’s own prize judges overlooked the timelessly prophetic lyrics of the artist’s 2012 classic ‘Global Warming’. Stunning brainpower and creative spirit? Look no further than “Category Sixes are storming / Take this as a, take this a warning / Welcome to, welcome to global warming.” Dylan Thomas Prize hopefuls? Quake in your boots.

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