Booker Bias?

Reader Logo by Scott Pack

I read something the other day that really pissed me off. Well, I say pissed me off, it left me mildly miffed for about the length of a train journey but that was still more emotion than normally emanates from me of a weekday.

What got my goat was this: in the Evening Standard there was a piece by David Sexton on Howard Jacobson winning the Man Booker Prize. This article/review (he didn’t think it was very funny, basically) picked out some comments made about the author’s relationship with the prize by prominent Jewish columnists. Giles Coren made the point that no Jewish man had won the award in its 40-plus-year history (neglecting to mention that two Jewish women had) and Jonathan Freedland was quoted for this nugget:

‘The long exclusion of Anglo-Jewry’s greatest living novelist was not just a slight on him but, indirectly, on our whole community.’

What? Are we really supposed to believe that a series of Man Booker judging panels, comprised every year of completely different people, had deliberately chosen to exclude Jacobson and that this is in some way linked to his religion and/or culture? That is what the quote suggests, isn’t it – or am I reading it wrong? That by ignoring Jacobson’s work to date the judges were in some way commenting in a wider sense on the whole Jewish community?

Could a more simple explanation be that none of his other books were up to snuff?

Or that his previous work simply didn’t appeal to the judges on duty in that particular year?

At this point I should come clean and admit that I have never read a novel by Howard Jacobson - or, to be more precise, I have never finished a novel by Howard Jacobson – so I am not qualified to comment on the relevant merits of one of his books compared to another. I tried The Making of Henry when his then publisher, Jonathan Cape, sent me an advance copy during my time at Waterstone’s. The proof was splattered with hyperbolic quotes and I was urged, almost begged, to read it as it was one of the best novels they had published in years and was the book that was going to finally break the author in to the big time. I got about 100 pages in and thought it was, you know, sort of OK. It was decent enough but nothing amazing, in my humble opinion. So I put it down and moved on. I have dipped in to some of his books since but none of them have ever tempted me to do any more than that.

I realise that this is just my view but ask yourself this, when is the last time someone said to you ‘you really must read the new Howard Jacobson novel, it is fucking amazing’? Seriously, has that ever happened? ‘It’s funny’, ‘it’s really good’, ‘it is worth a read’, these phrases may have been used but I have never had anyone rave to me about a Jacobson novel who wasn’t either a) his publisher or b) his agent, and I have had hundreds of people rave to me about hundreds of authors over the years.

But I am in danger of making this an anti-Jacobson piece and it is not meant to be that. I have nothing against the man. He may not have written any books that have impressed me enough to actually read them all the way through but he has a nice beard and gave an amusing acceptance speech and I was genuinely pleased to see him win because it is great when the outsider beats the favourite.

And, to be honest, I was surprised when Giles Coren (who shares an agent with Howard Jacobson) took the trouble to point out that no Jewish man had won before. That is an interesting fact. I was unaware of that particular statistic although I couldn’t tell you how many left-handed people have won the Man Booker Prize. Or gay writers. Or those with blue eyes. Or those from Essex. I was under the impression that the prize was awarded for the book, not the author, but perhaps I am being naive.

But back to the comments made by Jonathan Freedland (who shares an agent with Howard Jacobson). Has there really been a slight, indirect or otherwise, on the Jewish community by the exclusion of this writer from the winner’s podium until now? Really?

I have met Jonathan Freedland. I found him to be a fascinating and awfully nice chap. His book, Jacob’s Gift, about three generations of his own family is a cracking read and well worth tracking down. He also writes a very successful series of thrillers under the pen name Sam Bourne. He knows a great deal about the world of writing, books and publishing, but I am not sure I can agree with him here. Assuming that his quote hasn’t been taken horribly out of context, of course.

Which brings me, finally, to my whole bloody point, and to where I end up sort of agreeing with Coren and Freedland even though I have just said I don’t. We all have authors who we feel have been unfairly ignored by prize judges, the critics, book retail promotions and the wider reading public and some of us will get bloody annoyed by that. We don’t all have columns in national newspapers to sound off in but some of us have blogs and all of us have the power of word-of-mouth at our disposal. We should use that power, no matter how small it may be, to sing the praises of the authors we love because somewhere, at some time, someone will listen and we will have done our bit to spread the word about a literary wonder.

I cannot believe, for example, that Sebastian Beaumont isn’t being hailed as one of this country’s most inventive and exciting new novelists. It astounds me that All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman isn’t a million copy bestseller. It is verging on the criminal that hardly anyone I know has read Ryan Boudinot’s remarkable collection of short stories The Littlest Hitler.

But this will change. I am sure of it. One reader at a time.

So fair play to Giles and Jonathan for stoking the fires while the Man Booker judges were making their decisions, and congratulations to Howard for finally scooping the prize. The author they have been championing now has the recognition they think he deserves.

And here’s to the next unsung hero of literature who is long overdue his or her day.

Photo credit: Stefan Insam


Dave said...

Good post - totally agree. However "naive" it may be, prizes should be for books/stories and not for authors, well this prize should anyway.

But what prompted a comment in response was your closing mention of certain authors rarity/scarcity. I bought "The Littlest Hitler" a few years ago in New York (a brilliant collection) and recently read Andrew Kaufman's book (dare I say, perfect?). So given that you have such superb taste in books (!), I'm now going to have to spend some money on Sebastian Beaumont - bugger!

Paul Bailey said...

That Kaufman book was the most overrated pamphlet I've ever wasted £8 on in a Waterstones.

Scott Pack said...

Fascinating that one man's perfect book is another's over-rated pamphlet.

Minnie said...

Yes, prizes should be awarded on the book's merit - for no other reason.
Terrific post, written with wit and honesty (what a rare combination!) - and I agree with your conclusion: we should all be singing the praises of otherwise overlooked authors we love. While bearing in mind (as Paul Bailey's comment reminds us) that while we're busily extolling apples, another reader faced with our preference would rather eat a citrus fruit - any citrus fruit ...