September 7, 2010

Election Recount Brouhaha Over "Not the Booker" Prize


For the second year, The Guardian is hosting the “Not the Booker” prize, a democratic alternative to the the Man Booker Prize. As Sam Jordison wrote in the prize’s preliminary post: “The [Booker] panel are unrepresentative. Who are these people? Who chooses them? Why should, say, James Naughtie be judging this year’s prize? Are they really better judges than you or I?”

On Monday, the polls opened to determine the prize’s shortlist and after an exciting race, a pack of outsider titles had risen to the top: The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie, Pictures of Lily by Matthew Yorke, Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton, Advice for Strays by Justine Kilkerr, and Melville House‘s very own The Canal by Lee Rourke. It seemed like a perfect alternative shortlist to the Booker’s list of heavy hitters such as Emma Donoghue and Peter Carey.

But by Tuesday morning Jordison announced that the vote would be nixed and a recount would be called. Why? Apparently some of the authors had been asking their friends and fans to vote for their novels! Some of them even “exerting pressure through social networking sites.” The prize, claimed The Guardian, had been “been hijacked by what might be termed minority pressure groups.”

The list of winners now had to face a run-off vote with “a second list of books that seemed to be doing well in a rather less shouty, just registered-to-vote kind of way.” Apparently a vote for David Mitchell‘s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (featured on the institutionally endorsed “list two”) had more integrity than a vote for The Cuckoo Boy.

The “minority pressure groups” cried foul. Justine Kilkerr, author of Advice for Strays, wrote “I, like others, drew the attention of those online who follow me on Twitter to the existence of the competition….I didn’t force anyone to vote. I didn’t pay people to vote…Those who have voted for me are genuine readers who have enjoyed the book.”  Laurence Johns, publisher of indie-press To Hell With Publishing, wrote “You pick a jokey title like ‘not the booker’, you choose a humorous prize like ‘a mug’…and then you get all serious when we rally the troops behind our one and only title? I mean what is a tiny publisher to do?”

Unlike other notable mishandled elections of the 21st century, this story has a happy ending.  The Guardian readers overwhelmingly and vehemently voted to let the first shortlist stand.  (A representative comment: “List one, please. And for the record, I don’t put my name behind crap.”) Though perhaps we’re just biased election hijackers…

In the end, the Not the Booker will end up being as imperfect a prize as… the Booker itself.  But at least one of Sam Jordison’s original questions will be answered. Who are these people? Who picks this prize? They are readers, writers, publishers, twitterers, bloggers, critics, and fans. They are a microcosm of the literary world, and they’re all jostling to say what is good, fine, and best.  You can meet them in the comments. It’s an awfully interesting read.