The Common Reader as Judge: The Golden Man Booker Prize & The Hugo Awards

Was I excited about the Golden Man Booker Prize?

No, of course not.  I was barely aware of it.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is the winner of the prize, which was established to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the Booker.   It was (sort of) determined by popular vote at the Man Booker Prize website.  There might be a point to popular vote–except it wasn’t really popular.  Literary judges chose the finalists from previous winners, one from each of the five decades:   In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively,  The English Patient , Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

My own “bests,” of course, did not make the shortlist:  Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. My favorites never win.  But of course they already won.

I wonder: why wasn’t the Golden Booker Prize a free-for-all for fans, like the Hugo Award?  The Hugo IS determined by popular vote. Fans who register to attend WorldCon (an SF convention) nominate the books and vote for the winners at the convention.  The Golden Booker voters couldn’t have gone wrong by choosing past Booker winners.  Jolly old England is so snobbish!  What were they afraid of?

Here are some of the great Hugo classics:

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1963)

Dune by Frank Herbert (1966)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1970)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2005)

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (2008)

Blackout/ All Clear by Connie Willis (2011)

May I just say that these six books are the SF equals of the Booker?

Not all were keen on the Golden Man Booker.  Ron Charles, editor of the book page at the Washington Post, has incisively criticized the Nobel Prize judges, and  he was annoyed by the selection of the Golden Man Booker.  He writes,

As a system of selection, this is a curious conflation of the single expert and the wisdom of crowds — or, if you will, super elitism and mob rule. After all, each novel on the short­list was chosen by just one person (not nearly enough), and yet the winner was chosen by thousands (far too many).

Having the unwashed public pick the best novel sounds wonderfully egalitarian, but it ignores all kinds of unanswerable questions about the self-selection and legitimacy of the voters. Is it intolerably snobby to wonder how many of these 9,000 people knew anything about the books on the shortlist? And, anyhow, is the public a reliable judge of literary quality? The weekly bestseller list is, after all, a constantly adjusting contest of the public’s tastes, and it is rarely encouraging.

At his best–when he is not promoting romance novels to entice the “unwashed” public–Charles is an old-school snob, the kind we love to read in a mainstream book review publications.  Just as the rich are different from you and me, the critic is different  from bloggers and Goodreads reviewers.  I read both Charles and Goodreads reviewers when I’m looking for something to read.  I rarely agree with Charles, and I don’t here, but I enjoy his sharp critical essays.