Why Man Booker beats Nobel Prize

Why Man Booker beats Nobel Prize
Man Booker prize shortlist nominee Eleanor Catton poses with her book "The Luminaries" during a photocall at the Southbank Centre in London.

SINGAPORE - Booksellers are often the real winners when literary awards are given out, as recognition often fuels reader demand for the books.

The Nobel Prize for Literature and Man Booker Prize were both given out this month, but they are not equally prized by retailers.

The Nobel Prize, worth 8 million Swedish krona (S$1.5 million), is one of the richest literary awards in the world, but it is expected to raise sales of recipient Alice Munro's collections of short stories here by only 25 per cent, says a spokesman for distributor Pansing Books.

In contrast, the spokesman adds: "With Booker nominations, we would see an increase on average of 150 per cent."

Sales are certainly jumping for the winner of this year's £50,000 (S$99,000) award, Eleanor Catton's historical mystery The Luminaries. Distributors have more than doubled orders for the 850-page winning tome while local online bookstore Booktique is bracing for a rush for the e-book version.

"Fans of reading are embracing e-books for their convenience and portability. We believe the more portable e-book option would appeal to people," says a spokesman for StarHub, which manages the store.

Even books which did not win the Man Booker, but made it to the short list, are selling out fast. Distributor Penguin Books has supplied 2,500 copies of Booker shortlisted novel The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri to stores and is bringing in 5,000 more to meet demand, a very respectable amount, given that distributors here consider a novel that sells 2,000 copies a year a local bestseller.

While Lahiri's name might sell a book on its own, We Need New Names, the Booker-nominated debut of previously unheard-of African writer NoViolet Bulawayo, has also recorded more than double sales. This is clearly thanks to its place on the Booker shortlist, says a spokesman for MPH Singapore.

The Booker effect lingers long after the winner is announced, local booksellers say, to the point where it is considered the most influential prize in the Singapore book retail business.

I repeat. The literary prize most likely to have Singaporean readers whipping out their wallets is the Man Booker Prize, given out for the last 42 years to contemporary fiction from the British Commonwealth and Ireland and from next year, also books from America.

An ingrained post-colonial mentality would explain why the Booker is more likely to influence readers in Singapore than regional awards such as the South East Asian Write Award (S.E.A. Write Award) or even the former Man Asian Literary Prize, given out from 2006 to last year, but now struggling for a sponsor willing to invest big bucks in showcasing writing from Asia.

But why then does the Booker also outrank that crowning leaf in the literary laurel, the Nobel Prize for Literature?

One reason is that the Man Booker team is very media savvy. Compare the regular announcements of longlist and shortlist nominees with the Swedish Academy's stern refusal to reveal anything, even to the winners themselves.

Nobel laureates are notified barely an hour before the official announcement. Search YouTube for a fantastic clip of British writer Doris Lessing receiving the news of her 2007 Nobel while alighting from a taxi. "Oh Christ," the octogenarian says, turning to pay the driver.

This year's winner, Munro, was fast asleep when the Swedish Academy called, so a message was left on her answering machine.

Publicity is only part of the answer, for even the biggest blitz cannot sell an unreadable book beyond a certain point. (Fifty Shades Of Grey readers, I'm talking to you. Admit it, the advertising was better than the content.)

For at least the past 15 years, the Booker Prize winner has been a writer considered literary, but also accessible and enjoyable, to the point where in 2011, the judges had to defend their shortlist against charges of "dumbing it down" to suit popular tastes. Happily, all sides were satisfied that year when British novelist Julian Barnes won with The Sense Of An Ending.

Other past winners include Margaret Atwood's exquisitely layered drama The Blind Assassin (2000), Yann Martel's subversive sea adventure Life Of Pi (2002), DBC Pierre's blackly comic crime romp Vernon God Little (2003), Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008) and two of the best historical novels about Tudor England ever written, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012).

Mantel made history as the first novelist to win Bookers for both a novel and its sequel. Contrast this with the Nobel Prize and the secure knowledge that Munro's win means Atwood, an equally viable contender, is now off the Swedish Academy's radar for at least a couple of years, since they never give Nobel Prizes in the same field to the same country twice in a row. This, even though her seminal work, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), is a feminist primer taught in literature schools around the world and almost as importantly, she made speculative fiction respectable with books such as Oryx And Crake (2003).

Award announcements always lead to heated discussions, but many would agree that the Swedish Academy is known for honouring the obscure over the obvious. According to British newspaper Guardian, news of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio's win in 2008 "caused an undignified scramble in the UK to find someone - anyone - who had read him recently enough to have anything sensible to say". Similarly, poet Tomas Transtromer received the 2011 Nobel to loud shouts of acclaim in his country and polite, puzzled clapping from the rest of the world - Tomas who?

Readers enjoy discovering new writers, but only if recommended by trusted friends. The Man Booker judges have won a reputation of being trustworthy and willing to recommend the readable.

Where does that leave the Nobel Prize then? In need of a serious overhaul before readers can appreciate its value.


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