For more than 30 years, the Booker Prize (renamed Man Booker after its takeover by the Man Group) has enjoyed near cult status in much of the English-speaking world but on Thursday a group of prominent British writers, literary agents and critics announced a “rival'' prize, “The Literature Prize'', amid a growing and ill-tempered row over the quality of this year's Booker shortlist which has been criticised for favouring “readability'' over literary merit.
The prize, to be launched next year, promises to recognise “the best novel'' written in the English language and published in the U.K. in a given year regardless of the nationality of the writer — unlike the Booker which is restricted to writers from the Commonwealth countries.
In a swipe at Booker which is judged by a mix of literary and non-literary figures, including pop celebrities, sponsors of the new prize were keen to emphasise that it would be judged by a panel of “professional critics, writers, academics and other experts in the field'' whose “sole'' aim would be to set a “clear and uncompromising standard of excellence''.
With few details available [even the amount of the prize was not revealed], there was an air of “mystery'' about the “new Booker'' except that the aim seemed to be to “out-Booker the Man Booker, given that [apparently] that prize has gone right downmarket'', as The Times literary critic noted.
In a statement, the sponsors calling themselves “The Advisory Board of the Literature Prize'' pledged to “offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition''.
“For many years, this brief was fulfilled by the Booker [latterly Man Booker] Prize. But ...it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability' over artistic achievement. We believe...that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and to celebrate the very best novels published in our time,'' said the statement.
The driving force is said to be Andrew Kidd, a high-profile literary agent and former publisher, none of whose books made it to this year's Booker longlist. But, he insisted, that it was “not personal'' and claimed the support of “publishers, agents, literary scouts and critics''.
Several former Booker Prize winners , including Pat Barker and John Banville, welcomed the initiative apparently on the basis that the more the merrier. Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: “We welcome any credible prize which also supports the reading of quality fiction.''