Hasan Suroor

After 38 years, the novelty is starting to wear off and the bad news is that the market has stopped responding.

Could 2007 turn out to be the year the Man Booker Prize went into decline? This is the question being asked as, barely two weeks before the prize is given, most of the books on this year’s shortlist are struggling to sell and there is hardly any excitement even in circles which, on past form, should have been buzzing with Booker-talk.

I am not sure how much interest there is in India regarding the prize — beyond the curiosity over the fate of the Indian contender Indra Sinha — but in Britain, the homeland of the prize, the £50,000 annual literary honour is no longer the attention-grabbing event it once was.

It is still one of the most coveted prizes in the English-speaking world; the champagne-drenched awards party in London is still a big draw attended by A-list literary celebrities and is telecast live on BBC; and the Booker shortlist still makes news in the more serious press.

But after 38 years, the novelty is starting to wear off and the bad news is that the market has stopped responding. In an era of marketing the function of all literary awards, as seen by publishers and booksellers, is to boost the sales of prize-winning books. And the Booker, with its hype and the reputation for discovering “new” and “exciting” talent (though mostly it is neither), has consistently delivered on this count. Or did until this year.

There was a time when even an appearance on the Booker “longlist” with no chance of making it to the shortlist, let alone to the big night, did wonders for a book. And being short-listed was heaven. But no more, as the sales of the six novels on this year’s shortlist suggest. Except for Ian McEwan’s On Chisel Beach, which was doing well even before it was short-listed, others are struggling in what is turning out to be the worst marketing year for the Booker shortlist in recent memory.

And guess which is the slowest-moving title? Our own Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People which, until a week ago, had sold only 1,189 copies. Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid, the other Asian in the race, had done slightly better with his The Reluctant Fundamentalist shifting 2,918 copies. Even Mr Pip, a very unusual novel by New Zealander Lloyd Jones and arguably the best book on the shortlist, had sold a mere 2,802 copies. Sales of the other two short-listed books — Nicola Barker’s Darkmans and Anne Enright’s The Gathering — were hovering around less than 2,000 copies each. Together, the six Booker titles managed to sell 120,770 copies according to a Nielsen Bookscan survey whereas Crystal by topless model Katie Price alias Jordan sold nearly 160,000 copies.

So, why is that nobody seems to want the Booker books any more?

Poor quality

One reason for the turn-off is, of course, the quality of this year’s crop. The judges insist that it is an “exciting” list but, as someone who has read four of the books, I find it hard to share their enthusiasm. Sinha’s novel, a take on the Bhopal gas tragedy, is unreadable; Hamid’s story of a U.S.-based Pakistani who falls out of love with America sounds phoney; and McEwan’s meditation on the man-woman relationship has its moments but is too slight.

Another factor could be that there has been a proliferation of heavily hyped literary prizes in recent years, inducing in readers an awards-fatigue. John Sutherland, a distinguished critic and the chair of judges for the 2005 Booker prize, believes that it is part of the decline in the popularity of literary fiction in general and he blames it on Britain’s library system.

“Libraries used to be committed to stocking literary fiction, which guaranteed sales and exposed readers to quality writing. This is no longer the case,” he told The Daily Telegraph. He also thought that people were not investing enough time in literary fiction when other “quick fixes” were available.

“There are also more genres than ever before — celebrity biography and chick-lit, for example, are new inventions. Price is another factor: £17.99 is a lot to spend on some fine but bland writing when less scrupulous novels offer guaranteed thrills and spills, albeit unedifying ones,” the paper’s literary editor, Michael Prodger, noted.

Lack of public interest

Whatever the reason, a lack of public interest is hard to ignore. But a judgment on whether it is just a blip — a one-off — or whether the Booker is in danger of going into terminal decline will have to wait. If this year’s trend is repeated in 2008 then the danger signals should be up.

While on the Booker, here is the latest on V.S. Naipaul who won the prize in 1971 for In a Free State. It comes from The Observer columnist Cristine Odone and has echoes of Paul Theroux’s account of Sir Vidia’s famous curmudgeonliness.

Under the headline ‘Niggardly Naipaul,’ Ms. Odone wrote:

“Last week, V.S. Naipaul condemned the ‘ingratitude’ of Muslims who seek a better life in Britain, then try to destroy their host society. Sir Vidia knows about ingratitude.

“A few years ago, I interviewed the Maharana of Udaipur, Arvind Singh Mewar, who told me of an award he was establishing for those whose work best interpreted India. He wanted an international figure as the first recipient. What about V.S. Naipaul? I suggested. I could act as an intermediary. The Maharana agreed.

“Persuading Naipaul to accept the award took me several months of hard negotiations. The date, the distance, the newness of the award — everything was presented as an obstacle. But finally, he and his wife were flown to the Lake Palace and a torch-lit banquet worthy of A Thousand and One Nights. On the night the Maharana introduced us, Sir Vidia ignored me. When his wife asked who I was, he explained: ‘Oh, just a journalist.’”

Corrections and clarifications