The Booker Prize: do we still need it?

In the wake of Damon Galgut's Booker Prize victory, we ask, do we really need the accolade or is it all just literary pomp and circumstance?

Jake Watson
17th November 2021
Samira Ahmed, host of the 2021 event. Image Credit: Booker Prize Media Centre
The Booker is, without a doubt, the leading literary prize in the English-speaking world. First launched in 1969, in its 52 years of existence, the prize has become a hallmark of the finest of English literature. But the accolade has come a great way from its early days, where the first ceremony took place in the Worshipful Company of Drapers in the City of London, which I can only imagine was a completely stuffy and pompous affair.

Today, the Booker Prize is a much-awaited event in the calendars of bookish folk all across the world. With the distribution of the Longlist and the Shortlist in the months prior to the announcement of the title prize – which is now awarded in a televised ceremony at Broadcasting House – the Booker shapes reading lists for almost a whole quarter of the year for many people. In fact, you’ll find book clubs that are solely dedicated to reading the Booker longlist from head to toe every year. Have we all gone a little Booker mad?

The 2021 Booker Shortlisted Authors - Image Credit: The New European

I can't help but feel that the Booker today is not what it was ever intended to be. With its £50,000 prize money and the celebrity status that comes with it (take a look at Margaret Atwood's 207k Instagram followers, for example), the prize is just as much about politics, celebrity culture, and the economics of bookselling, as it is about championing exemplary literary works.

I don't mean to say that these things should never come into play - of course, we live in a multi-faceted society that ticks on by (thanks) to the ringing of tills and the beeping of contactless, but shouldn't the largest Literary prize in this part of the world at least try to uphold the good old value of literary escapism? It's certainly arguable that this is beyond the remit of the prize and its organisers, but I do believe that they have a certain responsibility towards ensuring that the prize offers good quality literature to those who are looking for it, without the high society theatricals of Britain's literati that is more likely to make some readers run a mile from books, rather than picking one up. There is something important to be said about The Booker Prize's accessibility and how well it serves as a way to get more people to read texts from authors they haven't heard of before, or genres they've never tried. There's certainly a champagne snobbery to the award that detracts from the real purpose of the prize. The Booker need to return entirely to what it does best - books.

But it's also true that the prize can certainly do good. Take for example, Sally Rooney - although she didn't win, her novel Normal People made it onto the 2018 Longlist, and shortly after, had received the highest of accolades and amassed a cult following that the literary scene hadn't since since Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, or dare I say, E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Nobody could deny the immense power that Rooney and her novel ammased, having sold 64,000 copies in the first 4 months of its US release alone. There's a real joy to see people reading in a culture that is now so often dominated by short-form media, and this is what should be at the heart of the Booker's mission.

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AUTHOR: Jake Watson
3rd year French and English Literature student at Newcastle University, with an interest in all things Arts, Culture & Food. Fran Leibowitz wannabe. @JMichaelWatson on Twitter.

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