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The Booker goes global too

27 October 2008

The spectacle of meltdown in world banks and stock markets has meant that the Booker Prize has passed us by, but it's worth backtracking a little to look at this most international of prizes. It's odd that it should have such a global effect, as it's by no means the biggest or even the most prestigious of literary prizes. The IMPAC's 100,000 euros (£79,859 or $127,000) outguns it and the Nobel is worth much more and also has far more prestige but generally, in the UK and US at least, it doesn't sell books.

The proliferation of literary prizes, News Review 21 July looks at the enormous number of literary prizes which dominate the literary fiction scene. Many of these have a major impact, but the Booker, now in its 40th year, soldiers on as the biggest of them all. Last year's not particularly popular winner, Anne Enright's The Gathering, sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide and each of the 2007 shortlisted titles sold over 100,000 copies. These are astonishing figures for literary novels, so the Prize is certainly successful at getting a lot of people to buy literary fiction.

Partly this is because of the controversy the Booker seems to engender. Year after year the judges are reckoned to have chosen the wrong winner, which generally means not the most readable, nor the most salesworthy, nor even from the most well-known author. It's almost a cliché that major authors often do not make it on to the shortlist. This year even the New York Times blared on its front page: 'Rushdie snubbed by Booker'.

Tibor Fischer, a previous judge, says: 'If you go for established names, you are criticised for playing safe, if you go for unknowns, people ask "Who they?" There will always be a big stick to beat the judges with.'

Alex Clark, editor of Granta, and one of this year's judges, wrote in the Observer: 'The problem with literary culture is not that there bad novels and good novels, but that there are so many that can be described as average, or good enough. But good enough for what?' The question of who defines the 'what' is also relevant. Judges for big prizes will generally choose what they individually think is best, so the outcome depends a lot on who the judges are. Victoria Glendinning, a previous judge, also pinpoints the effect of compromise in the final discussions: 'Novels with strong support can quickly cancel each other out.'

This year there was controversy, not altogether unwelcome to the Prize's administrators, when Jamie Byng of Canongate posted a note on the Booker website to say that he could not respect a judging committee that had overlooked Helen Garner's The Spare Room, which he had published, for a book like Tom Rob Smith's crime novel Child 44. Byng might be considered a little partis pris, but his posting demonstrated the way in which everyone feels they are entitled to a view on the winner.

The Booker's global reach and importance in stimulating sales of literary novels is growing. The publisher Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic Inc shouted 'Three years in a row!' on hearing of Aravind Adiga's win this year with his debut novel The White Tiger. Grove published previous winners Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and Anne Enright's The Gathering in the US, whilst Atlantic Books, a British publisher co-founded by Entrekin and in which Grove has a majority stake, released The White Tiger in Britain. The world of book prizes is becoming more global.