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Moseley Merritt. A History of the Booker Prize. Contemporary Fiction Since 1992

London and New York: Routledge, 2021
Vanessa Guignery
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Merritt Moseley. A History of the Booker Prize. Contemporary Fiction Since 1992. London and New York: Routledge, 2021. 239 p.

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1In 1987, Julian Barnes devoted an essay to the Booker Prize in the London Review of Books in which he recalled what one of the judges told him after the award ceremony three years before when he had been short-listed for his novel Flaubert’s Parrot: ‘I hadn’t even heard of this fellow Flaubert before I read your book. But afterwards I sent out for all his novels in paperback.’ This is the kind of memorable anecdote that flourishes every year around the Booker and many of them are to be found in Merritt Moseley’s A History of the Booker Prize. Contemporary Fiction Since 1992.

2The book starts with a very clear and useful introduction highlighting the main historical landmarks, processes, changes and controversies of the Booker since its creation in 1968 (the first prize was awarded in 1969), before providing an entry for each year from 1992 to 2019—incidentally two years in which the prize was split in two (with Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger as joint winners in 1992, and Atwood’s The Testaments and Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other in 2019, the fiftieth year of the Booker). Among the topics addressed in each entry feature the shortlisted books themselves (but also those that were left off the list) and their literary value, a profile of their authors and their popularity, the role played by publishers, reviewers and bookmakers, the vagaries and compromises of judges, the evolution of the Prize and its criteria, and, of course, its ‘scandals’, thanks to which the Booker still thrives (from the omission of names on the long and short lists to the polemical public declarations and reactions of nominees and judges, and yearly disputes over the choice of the winner). Moseley also refers to other prizes and their winners, such as the Whitbread Prize which follows the Booker some two months later and sometimes ‘rectif[ies] errors made by the Booker judges’ (67) or the Folio Prize (now Rathbones Folio Prize), created in 2014 when some felt the Booker was leaning towards popular or ‘readable’ rather than literary fiction. To adapt one of the author’s comments in the 1995 entry, the book’s examination of the reasons for the inclusion of some works on the short list and the exclusion of others provides ‘a glimpse into the literary life of 1990s[–2010s] Britain that is almost as telling from the anthropological as the literary point of view’ (35). The Booker Prize does indeed offer a partial snapshot of the literary scene at a given time and that is what makes Moseley’s book and contextual approach so valuable.

3Several works have already been published on the Booker but each adopts a perspective, time frame or structure which differs from Moseley’s. In Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today (1996), Richard Todd examines the significant changes that took place from 1980 to 1995 and contributed to the development of a prize culture. The two books published by the Booker organization—Booker 30: a Celebration of 30 Years of The Booker Prize for Fiction 1969–1998 and The Man Booker Prize: 35 Years of the Best in Contemporary Fiction 1969–2003—are ‘celebrations’ which therefore abstain from any critical comments about the way the Prize functions or about the award-winning books themselves. Luke Strongman’s The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire (2002) spans the award period to 1999 and explores the stages of imperial heyday and decline as reflected in the Booker novels. Claire Squires, in her articles and chapters on literary awards and the Booker Prize in particular (and also in Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, 2007), approaches the Prize from the perspective of the history of the book, publishing studies and the economic dimension of culture, as does James English in Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value (2009). A study of the literary marketplace in the early 2000s is to be found in Anna Auguscik’s Prizing Debate: the Fourth Decade of the Booker Prize and the Contemporary Novel in the UK (2017), which also presents case studies of six novels by Aravind Adiga, Margaret Atwood, Sebastian Barry, Mark Haddon, DBC Pierre and Zadie Smith. Several collections of essays focus on specific winners of the Booker as, for example, Locating the Periphery: Booker Prize and the Indian English novel (2003), edited by Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal, which centers on Booker Prize winning novels by Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga and Kiran Desai.

4Moseley’s A History of the Booker Prize differs from existing books on the subject in its comprehensive view of literary debates pertaining to the Booker in Britain and internationally from 1992 to 2019. One of the book’s main strengths is to provide a detailed history of the Prize year by year and an analysis of its specificities through a literary (and not only sociological) analysis of a great quantity of books published over nearly three decades. An Emeritus Professor from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Moseley explains in the preface that he became fascinated by the Booker Prize while living in England with his family in 1988, the year when Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses appeared on the short list and the winner was Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. Compared to ‘the understated, not to say comparatively clandestine, way in which the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners came to be known’ (ix), the carefully-managed publicity surrounding the Booker Prize for weeks until the award night seemed particularly foreign to Moseley. Four years later, he proposed to the editor of the American journal The Sewanee Review that he contribute an essay on the Booker Prize, and what was meant to be a one-off continued for 27 years. A History of the Booker Prize is thus a revised version of these chronicles and of two pieces published in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook for 1996 and in the journal American, British, and Canadian Studies in 2019. An avid reader, Merritt Moseley is also the author of monographs on David Lodge, Kingsley Amis, Julian Barnes, Michael Frayn, Pat Barker and Jonathan Coe, and A History of the Booker Prize confirms his expertise in contemporary British fiction and his insightful knowledge of the mechanisms of the Booker (in addition to the essays in the Sewanee Review, he edited Booker Prize Novels, 1969–2005 as volume 326 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography).

5Among the recurrent debates about the Booker Prize contenders and recipients to which Moseley draws attention in the introduction and in yearly entries is the dichotomy between highbrow, ambitious, intellectually challenging, serious literary books (what Gore Vidal tagged ‘R & D—research and development—novels’), and popular, best-selling, commercial and ‘readable’ books (‘R & R novels, for rest and relaxation’). Moseley argues that the pendulum (or what Martyn Goff calls the ‘seesaw effect’) swings from one to the other, with, for example, the popular, reader-friendly winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle in 1993 being followed the next year by James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late which was judged ‘fundamentally unreadable’ (30) by Paul Levy in the Wall Street Journal, and ‘wretched’ (31), ‘deplorable’ (34), ‘tedious’ (42) and ‘unpleasant’ (43) by Moseley himself. The pendulum also swings when what is considered an excessive proportion of historical novels on the short list (in 1992 or 2009 for instance) gives way, in the next year, to a preference for books about contemporary life in England. The exclusion of established names from the short list always draws comments in the press, as was the case in three successive years (2006, 2007 and 2008) when judges issued a ‘giant-felling list’ (121) which favored lesser-known writers. Moseley also points to the lack of interest in comedy in the history of the Booker (the 2016 winner, The Sellout by American writer Paul Beatty, being one of the rare exceptions).

6A History of the Booker Prize mentions some of the contentious issues regularly stressed by Booker pundits, such as the underrepresentation of women (no female author was shortlisted in 1991 and only one in many subsequent years, but four made the list in 2019), the inclusion on the short list of books that do not meet the eligibility criteria (books that were not first published in the United Kingdom as required, for instance), the overrepresentation of some publishers such as Jonathan Cape and a bias against novelists from England, which may be seen more positively as a token of ‘the cosmopolitan richness of the literary novel in English’ (62). When examining the 2013 Man Booker Prize short list in Études britanniques contemporaines, Catherine Bernard interpreted the ‘global outreach’ of the list as the sign that ‘Britain’s soft power aims at maximizing its impact by absorbing into its sphere of influence any writer who may have had at some stage of his/her life a faint connection with the Commonwealth’ (175).

7Moseley rightly points out that ‘[t]he Booker organizers have always been shrewd about publicizing, expanding and tweaking the franchise’ (210), creating in 2005 the Man Booker International Prize, to be given every two years to ‘a living author who has published fiction either originally in English, or generally available in translation in the English language’ (104). Retrospective, ‘collective or cumulative awards’ (210) include the ‘Lost Man Booker’, for ‘novels published in 1970 that had no chance to win because of a change in the rules’ (151, awarded to J.G. Farrell’s Troubles), the ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Prize (given to Midnight’s Children), the ‘Best of the Booker’ in 2008 (also awarded to Midnight’s Children), the ‘Golden Man Booker Prize’ in 2018 (given to Ondaatje’s The English Patient) and even the ‘Best of Beryl’ in 2011 when readers could vote on which of Beryl Bainbridge’s five Booker-shortlisted novels—but never a winner—was her best (152, Master Georgie was chosen). Moseley underlines the significant changes that occurred in 2001–2002 when the sponsorship of the Prize was transferred from the frozen food company Booker PLC to the London-based international stockbroking house Man Group (in 2019, the new sponsor would be the Crankstart Foundation), the prize money was increased to £50,000 (it was £5,000 in 1969), and the organizers decided to make the long list public. But the most important and controversial change came in 2014 with the opening of the Prize to any English-language novel, whereas previously only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, South African, and later Zimbabwean citizens had been eligible. This modification made it possible for two American authors to win the Prize in two consecutive years (Paul Beattie in 2016 for The Sellout and George Saunders in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo) and for three books by American writers to appear on the shortlist in 2021.

8Another noteworthy feature of A History of the Booker Prize is that Moseley does not merely present the shortlisted books but proposes a literary analysis of each of them and consistently proffers his (often unsparing) opinion (with which the reader may or may not agree) on the nominees, winners and books that were excluded. In several entries, he even provides his own long list and comments at length on some books that were omitted by the judges. A History of the Booker Prize is therefore not only a well-informed and comprehensive history and evaluation of the most prestigious literary prize in Britain but also a very lively work in its own right.

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Référence électronique

Vanessa Guignery, « Moseley Merritt. A History of the Booker Prize. Contemporary Fiction Since 1992 »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 26 juin 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/12155 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.12155

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Vanessa Guignery

ENS de Lyon

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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