According to Sir Peter Stothard, the chairman of this year’s panel, the 2012 Man Booker Prize will be “controversy free.” By that he means free from the accusations of ‘dumbing down’ that surrounded last year’s awards when the judges announced they wanted books that had a high ‘readability’ factor.
So how are we meant to interpret the way this year’s prize will be determined?
Some academic heavyweights have been brought into the judging panel to lend gravitas but the figures from the entertainment world are still in evidence – presumably to ensure that the reading tastes of the ordinary man/woman in the street can still be reflected. Does that mean we will end up with a list of books that people actually want to read – or feel they should read so they can keep up with conversation around the supper party table in some leafy London suburb?
The judges undoubtedly have a difficult balancing act ahead of them – if they choose books the academy world loves but are deemed ‘difficult’ to read, the sales boost much desired by publishers, will not materialise. Sales of the 2011 shortlisted titles – a list considered to have a higher ‘readability’ factor than previous years – were more than double the level of the 2010 short listed books.
Stothard’s comments may have been designed to placate the literary cognoscenti and in doing so, fend off the threat that a rival prize will be established. Until we see the shortlisted titles, we won’t know whether he has succeeded. One thing is sure however, the idea of a controversy free year will not be all that welcomed by the publishing companies representing the authors of shortlisted titles. For them, all controversy (which translates into column inches in print or electronic ink) represents free exposure for their product. The greater the level of controversy, the more the reading public could feel compelled to go out and actually buy the book even if it’s merely to find out what all the fuss is about.
So a year in which the shortlist doesn’t attract comment, will not please the commercial interests that encircle award schemes like the Booker; the Orange Prize and the Costa Book Awards to the increasingly close tie up between entertainment world and books (think Oprah Book Club; Richard and Judy etc). Maybe Stothard is simply tilting at windmills?