Wednesday, January 23, 2008


John Sutherland, writing in The Daliy Telegraph suggests a way of narrowing the gap between book prizes and readers.

The book prize jamborees never stop.

The first major literary gong of the New Year - the Costa award - will be doled out on the 22nd and the panel of judges for the 2008 Man Booker Prize has recently been announced, with Michael Portillo at the helm.
While the Costa selects the winner from various categories - debut fiction, fiction, poetry, non-fiction and children's books - the Booker is rather less ecumenical. One issue in particular will have caused Ion Trewin's Booker administrative committee concern as they reviewed their lacklustre 2007. 'Does the damned thing matter any more?' was a question asked more than once. So does the world (the reading world) need the Man Booker Prize?
Howard Davies did not endear himself with his broadside against the reviewing establishment - a comment that will go down in Bookerlore, alongside John Berger's 'stuff your prize money' and Selina Scott's 'have you read them all?'

It may, indeed, be time for an overhaul of the system. Davies's remark about the perceived cosiness of reviewers, although he seemed not to be aware of it, boomerangs on him.
What are reviewers, after all? They are judges, advising readers how to choose among the huge over-supply of fiction barraged every week into the public domain.
And what is the Booker panel? It is exactly the same thing: judges, advising the public where they can best invest their valuable time and energy.
Newspaper reviewers are authorised by literary editors, at an average £250 per 1,000 words. Man Booker judges are authorised by Ion Trewin's committee, at £7,000 for chewing through 120 titles. De te fabula, Howard.

There are alternative judicial systems: systems which draw less on the Old Bailey model than the reality TV show. The Quills Prize, based in New York, has devised an elegant and adventurous judging system which, I think, Trewin and his coadjutors could think about as they review the moth holes in their own.
Why, the Quill governing board (made up of book trade people, editors, authors and TV people) asked, are the judgments that come from below - as reflected in bestseller lists - so different from those on high? 'I rejoice to concur with the common reader,' said Dr Johnson. Why doesn't the literary judging establishment so rejoice?

The Quill Awards are designed to bring juries and judges, bestsellers and 'quality' books closer together. The prize-winners are announced, like Man Booker's, in October - as the long nights come in and fireside reading beckons.
A panel of editors from Publishers Weekly select five nominees across 19 categories of popular book (from classic audio fiction, through graphic novels, science fiction, to three age-categories of young reader's book). Then the 'Quills Voting Board', comprising 6,000 invited booksellers and librarians, cast their votes for the winners. And, at a third stage, any interested reader from the general public can cast their online vote at The three polls are then weighted and totted up to decide the winners.

It all climaxes, Man-Booker style, at a gala black-tie event at New York's Lincoln Center. The full list of last year's winners can be found on the Quill website.
In fiction, Debut Author of the Year was won by Diane Setterfield, with The Thirteenth Tale. The General Fiction winner was Cormac McCarthy, with The Road. The Romance category was Angels Fall, by Nora Roberts (which was also 'Book of the Year'). Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, as read by Sissy Spacek, was the best audio book. Laura Lippman and Patrick Rothfuss won Mystery and SF respectively.

The Quill machine may seem over-engineered. But it works. And it is less of a wild turkey shoot than the Man Booker, where winners (as last year) come from nowhere and, all too often, go back there in terms of sales and common reader approval.
It might already be too late for this year but it would be easy for Man Booker to set up something analogous to Quill - and spread its interests across, at least, several fictional categories (do romance, science fiction, or crime novels have any chance? Camels and needles is easy by comparison).
The grand panjandrum panel could make their 'shortlist' and the final judgments thrown open to larger constituencies. Perhaps even Dr Johnson's common reader. Over to you, Ion.

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