Weep not for Lloyd Jones. He may have failed to win the Man Booker Prize with his novel Mister Pip, but no one will ever say he choked when the pressure was on. No one will analyse his book to death trying to work out where it went wrong. No one will call for his publisher’s head. And though the Booker is as big in its own way as the Rugby World Cup is in its way, few will see the result as a hammer blow to the nation’s fragile collective ego.
Most people will already have concluded, in fact, that Jones clearly wrote a damn good book, that he did damn well to make the Booker shortlist, and that he deserves congratulations for all he has achieved. We add ours, too, remembering that Jones was once the Listener’s sports columnist. Indeed, to the best of our knowledge, he is the only Listener sports columnist ever to have been nominated for the Booker, let alone make the shortlist.
Jones himself is probably mightily relieved that he didn’t win. It would have been nice, of course – being handed a cheque for $135,000 tends to be one of life’s more pleasurable experiences – but, as he said when the prize went to Anne Enright for her novel The Gathering, what with all the Booker hoop-la, and Mister Pip getting tremendous publicity as joint favourite, he feels as though he won it anyway.
And he has now been spared the publicity circus that would have probably chewed another six months out of his life. Booker Prize winners get paraded around chat shows and literary festivals like tame lions in the sawdust. Even before prizenight, Jones had been sending out signals of faint desperation, indicating that he’d like to get out of the ring and go back to his writing. Or jumping up and down on cars, or whatever it is people do when it’s time to move on.
In an age hungry for entertainment, it is often forgotten that what writers do best is write, not go up on stage and be witty and perceptive and wow the crowds with their charm. Writing by definition involves many lonely hours at the computer screen interacting with apostrophes and subjunctive clauses. It tends to make you introverted and pasty-faced, if you weren’t already. A serious writer who is a crowd-pleasing public figure is almost an oxymoron, or Clive James.
Publishers and booksellers love prizes and competitions for obvious reasons, but writers themselves have an ambivalent attitude towards them. None would be so churlish as to spurn the chance of a prize, but many secretly dread the attendant photo opportunities. They almost find themselves hoping that their book will succeed but not too much. Yet behind every halfway-successful writer is a publisher with a cattle prod goading them out of the spare room and into the arena.
Wherever Mister Pip finished in the judges’ estimation (will there be a playoff for second and third?), its success has been a wonderful boost for New Zealand literature. Now, therefore, would be a very good time for the government to show willing and reinforce that boost by backing our literature in the way that it has backed, say, our film industry. At the very least, that could take the form of raising the Public Lending Right (the amount authors get every time one of their books is borrowed from a public library), which has remained scandalously out of whack with inflation since its inception in 1973; more ambitiously, New Zealand could take a leaf from the Irish book and introduce tax breaks for struggling writers and artists.
Certainly there are the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement, introduced by the current government, which give three writers a one-off payment of $60,000 each; and a writer’s residency has been created in Berlin (Lloyd Jones currently holds it).
But compare that with Ireland’s state-funded Aosdána, a fellowship of up to 250 living creative artists, 120 of whom currently qualify for a five-year stipend enabling them to devote their energies fully to their work. What future Mister Pips lie unwritten for want of a leg up from the state? We don’t hesitate to pour millions of taxpayers’ dollars into sports like rugby; but after the Cardiff debacle, even the hardest-headed accountant might conclude that you’ll get a better return on your investment from scribblers than from scrummers.