Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Booker prize judges should read everything

The prize's director thinks many books submitted are 'junk', but that's no reason for the jury not to consider them

Pile of books
Tall order … a steep pile of books Photograph: Getty Images/Rubberball

Too many of the submissions for the Man Booker prize stand no chance of winning it? Surprise, surprise. It has been said before, it has been said a lot. The prize's director Ion Trewin has just said it again. Speaking to a meeting of publishers on 24 October, he characterised two-thirds of this year's submissions as "junk," and urged publishers not to submit books with no chance of being longlisted. Apparently this year's judges felt that the number of books submitted (151) was unusually onerous.

Many former judges have made the same point: Enough already! The most memorable formulation was by John Sutherland in 2005, who remarked you don't need to read half the submissions: "you don't have to eat the whole fish to tell that it's off." David Baddiel, a judge in 2002, suggested you might suffer from more than food poisoning if you read every book: the process, he remarked, was "soul-destroying".

When I was a judge, under Sutherland in 2005, there were 110 entries. I read almost all of them, because I took that to be my job. Of these perhaps 20 were distinctly indigestible, but my stomach survived, and so did my soul. I did not resent the less satisfying submissions, though I did end with a considerable list of writers whose next book would not be on my must-read list.

According to the previous rules (which have been reframed in the light of recent changes thatÍ allow American novelists), publishers were allowed to submit two entries, though under certain circumstances some were allowed more. This was well-intentioned, even though the results were sometimes regrettable. Small publishers, from serious imprints with good track records to tiny mom-and-pop presses, could submit entries, and in so doing make themselves that little bit better-known, and offer a reward to an author whose work, after all, they believed in enough to publish in the first place.

From the point of view of the author, it was presumably gratifying to have one's work competing on equal terms with writers published by Cape or Faber. Given that such small publishers had the right to make submissions, if they chose not to – in order to spare the poor judges – they would have to explain to their authors that, though they were happy to publish it, their book was not good enough to submit for the prize. This might well cause disappointment and bad feeling, and small publishing houses have enough problems without alienating their authors unnecessarily.

No. If something is to be done about a bad rule, it should be done – and has been done – by the framers of that rule, not by the people who benefit from it. The prize's organisers have always understood that great books can come from unlikely sources. A longlist has only been announced since 2001, but has frequently included books from small presses. The short list, though dominated by the major imprints, has had room, in the last year alone, for excellent books published by Myrmidon Books, Salt Publishing and Tindall Street.

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