October 16, 2011

A QUESTION: “Does the Not the Booker have real literary merit?” Sam Jordison responds …


Sam Joridson contemplates literature

For weeks, we’ve been watching The Not the Booker Prize unfold at The Guardian‘s books website, cheering for Lars Iyer‘s Spurious to take home the coveted first place prize: a coffee mug. (You can still vote here until midnight, London time.) When you’re hoping to win a literary prize where the prize’s name is essentially a joke, you sometimes wonder, does this prize have any true literary value? Last week, we asked The Not the Booker’s moderator and reviewer-in-chief Sam Jordison our question:

“The Not the Booker is associated with squabbling commentators, obscure novels, publishers going on the warpath, and voting by nobodies. So, does the Not the Booker have any real literary merit?”

Sam responds:

Nobodies?! Anybody who reads books and cares enough to go onto an online forum to talk about them is somebody, in my opinion. Somebody whose views are worth talking seriously—even if I violently disagree with them.

Otherwise, I’d tend to agree with most of that first sentence. There is a lot of squabbling. Publishers most definitely go on the warpath. And I hadn’t heard of any of the books on the shortlist and as an almost professional critic I’m supposed to know about these things…But then, couldn’t you say the same things about any literary prize? Isn’t the point of literary prizes, in fact, to promote books that people haven’t heard of, to argue passionately about literature and to get publishers ridiculously over-excited?

The notable difference about the Not The Booker is we do it all in the open. Because the negotiations for the Booker prize go on behind closed doors, you only tend to hear about the tantrums, fury and violent disagreements years later. Perhaps the real Booker seems more dignified as a result, but I think there’s a certain honesty to our approach. Okay, it’s a reckless honesty, because things can sometimes get quite fraught, but I think it’s worth it. It’s fascinating to see the horse-trading, the campaigning, the naked propaganda and, yes, the vicious lies that go into deciding a winner. Likewise, it’s heartening to see the passion that people have for the books. Even the authors who get terrible reviews from me tend to get fantastic messages of support and appreciation from other people taking part in the process—so I hope it’s pretty affirming for everyone.

The question of literary merit is harder. There are criticisms of the Not The Booker that I do understand—and with which to an extent I agree. The first is that people who vote only read one of the books—and so can’t really form a balanced judgment. There are quite a few noble exceptions who sample all the books on the list—but they are in a minority. The second is that a great many people only tend to vote because they are friends of the author, or somehow connected through social networking. And that’s also true, to an extent. Sometimes you can calibrate the vote timings almost directly to an author’s facebook post or tweet pleading for people to go online and support them…

But again, I think there’s value in laying this process bare. It isn’t that different from the closed literary circles where friends review and promote their friends ceaselessly in certain publications. In fact, the most important distinction is that most of the people taking part in The Not The Booker are separate from the comfortable, clubbish literary world and pushing in from the outside. So it is that we get to look at some very different kinds of books to the average award. Some of them are awful, but we also discover some fantastic new talents and publishing ventures. For instance, I hadn’t heard of Bluemoose Books before this year (on the list with King Crow by Michael Stewart) but now I want to read everything they produce.

What’s more, it’s always the good books that rise to the top. Of course, I may yet be proved wrong on this, since you never can control or predict a genuine democracy like the Not The Booker (which is definitely part of the fun), but when we’re presented with a stinker, the voters sniff it out. It’s always been made very clear, that books like the execrable Tomasby James Palumbo just won’t be tolerated. Partly that’s down to my reviews, but mainly it’s down to the people posting below the line. They make their feelings all too plainly known and scare away all but the thickest-skinned log-rollers. Conversely, the people posting below the line encourage each other to read the better books – and so gain them more readers, and more votes.

So it is that the three books that are ahead in the voting as I write this (8pm on Thursday 20 October, if you’re interested) are all excellent. Two of them are equally as good – and far more unusual – than plenty of recent Booker winners. They have merit. So there.