Explicitly aiming a barb at the Man Booker Prize, a group of publishers and agents with Andrew Kidd of Aitken Alexander as its spokesman has announced a new literary award, to be called the Literature Prize, “to establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence”.
The organisers said that there was a need for such a prize, because “as numerous statements by (the Man Booker’s) administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement”. They have the support of authors including former Booker winners Pat Barker and John Banville, as well as Mark Haddon, Jackie Kay, Nicole Krauss, Claire Messud, Pankaj Mishra and David Mitchell. Other “high-profile writers” are “offering strong support behind the scenes”.
There will be an announcement about funding for the new prize, and about the composition of the Literature Prize advisory board, “soon”,according to the organizers.
The organisers added: “We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time.”
A number of literary publishers and journalists have been strongly critical of the apparent agenda of the 2011 Man Booker judging panel. Dame Stella Rimington, chair of the judges, said that they were looking for “enjoyable books. I think they are very readable books.” Chris Mullin said that a “big factor” for him was that a novel had to “zip along”. Susan Hill tweeted: “Hurrah! Man Booker judges accused of ‘dumbing down’. They mean our shortlist is readable and enjoyable.”
In the New Statesman, Leo Robson commented: “I think we can all agree that if a book is to be given a prize, it ought not to be unreadable, but some of us recoil from the use of ‘readable’ to mean (essentially) ‘can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly’.”