The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on Oct 15. At least one name on the short list, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, has an ominous ring, doesn’t it? If you haven’t read a single book on the list, or even had time to scan the long list, come sit at my table.
I’m usually half a decade behind the winners. And don’t worry: within weeks the winner of another literary award will be announced. There are, after all, a bewildering variety of literary prizes in every language, genre and region, and if you don’t recognize the winner of the Booker, try the winner of the Orange, or the Orwell, or the Hemingway.
I’m not always sure that a prize guarantees I will get readable literature for my time and money. When one of my own favourite authors is crowned, I like to say I told you so, and it feels good to find Roddy Doyle, A.S. Byatt, Julian Barnes and other favourites of mine among the Booker winners in earlier years. Granted, after Hilary Mantel won a second Booker I lost some faith in the judges, but that round, shiny sticker on the cover generally inspires confidence in a book buyer.
The announcement that from next year American titles will also be eligible for a Booker has boosted the publicity for this particular prize. But even otherwise, many people do care about literary winners and losers, and many rush out and buy the hot titles. For those who live near a well-stocked bookshop and talk about the latest hardbacks over a salad and croissant with their friends, the issue of who will win is part of the social buzz of their lives. There will be writers who dream of writing a winner themselves and want to know how it’s done. Maybe people who are actively writing books that might be next year’s contenders feel the question to be more urgent than we do, though I wonder how they find the time to read while tapping out a few pages a day. Those who know people on the long lists and short lists surely want to cheer their friends on. Students of contemporary literature need to know who’s in the spotlight and who isn’t. Columnists and reviewers are paid to keep up with the latest books and writers, and bloggers do the same pro bono.
Let’s not forget those who gain most from the fuss and publicity surrounding literary prizes, the book publishers and sellers. It can’t be easy selling books to plodding readers who are suspicious of the hype surrounding new titles. Booksellers must shoot for the other readers, those who enjoy the satisfaction of owning the fashionable names, of having bought the first edition and got it signed just before the world took note. Fair enough.
What’s good for the book business is good for the book lover, and without those eager buyers, the rest of us would live in a book-poor world.