Exceptionally Wonderful Book

John Sutherland

  • Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh
    Green Bay in association with Colt, 268 pp, £14.99, July 1994, ISBN 0 948845 05 8

The most valuable prize ever awarded for a work of fiction was the $150,000 put up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1948 for Ross Lockridge’s epic of the American Civil War, Raintree County. The prizegiver’s motive in setting up this award was venal. They wanted to spawn a blockbuster series of ‘books of the film’ in the manner of Gone with the Wind. The longer-term aim was to out-spectacle TV and force the pesky new medium to ‘crawl back into its tube’. It all went wrong. The 1957 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, was epic only in the scale of its box-office failure. The chronically self-destructive Clift lost his good looks in an automobile crash during production, and has two disconcertingly different faces at various points in the narrative. Lockridge was so depressed by the scorn that the prize brought him that he killed himself the same year. Film, novel and prize are all forgotten. TV won.

Before freaking at the selections made by the Booker committee (a favourite activity of the British press in slack summer months) it makes sense to examine the machinery of prizegiving and the motives of the donor. Sometimes, as with MGM in 1948, the benefactor’s motives are transparent. As transparent is the Smarties Grand Prix, which Jill Paton Walsh won for her children’s book, Gaffer Samson’s Lunch, in 1984: Nestlé’s want to associate a product which is bad for children’s teeth with one that is thought to be good for their minds. The Encore fiction award, which gives a handsome prize (£7500) for the ‘best second novel of the year’, is designed to help starting novelists over a traditional obstacle. It does good and like other good deeds gets little publicity. Booker plc is a business conglomerate with a central interest in sugar. If it wanted to stay in character, it would presumably give its annual £20,000 to works of fiction that are outstandingly successful from a commercial point of view – Ken Follett and James Herbert, perhaps – or the most saccharine romance. Instead, it awards its prize to ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges, published each year’. ‘Best’ is interpreted as ‘most distinguished literary performance’. The ulterior motive, evidently, is to enhance the firm’s image at remarkably low cost. (The best snooker player of the year would be depressingly more expensive than the best novelist.) Only once, with John Berger in 1972, has a winner been graceless enough to allude publicly to the source of the prize-money in black men’s sweat.

Booker judges change every year and the one stable element is Martyn Goff, the éminence grise of the panel which chooses the judges. Ever since his earlier days at the National Book League and the New Fiction Society, Goff has laboured with the dedication of a fanatic to make the British read quality novels – something that does not come naturally to them. It has been a long haul, but with the Booker Prize, Goff has succeeded magnificently. A large segment of the public now uses the Booker shortlist as they might the selections of a book club. Every title on the list is guaranteed extra thousands of sales. Publicity is the key and bad publicity is as welcome as good, in that it encourages people to buy the books that are causing all the fuss.

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