How to win at literature

On the evening of 5th July 2018, carefully selected guests filtered into Buckingham Palace for dinner with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. You might say that the invitation list had started to be compiled fifty years previously. There were ten authors present, oddly biased towards the first half of the alphabet: Julian Barnes, Paul Beatty, Peter Carey, Eleanor Catton, Kiran Desai, David Grossman, Alan Hollinghurst, Howard Jacobson, Marlon James, V.S. Naipaul and Ben Okri. These gathered men, and two women, had won at literature.

The impending death of literature has been proclaimed so many times now that it might be best to refrain from further comment until the head is fully severed from the shoulders. The truth is that what we now call ‘literary fiction’ – a publishers’ term almost unrecognised until the 1970s – was always a pretty tough sell. As Tom Maschler put it in 1971, when he was director of Jonathan Cape: ‘Given the relative lack of interest in serious books among the British reading public (and alas, also among many booksellers) we depend on at least one or two bestsellers a year to subsidise out programme as a whole.’ He wasn’t lying. Then Cape chairman Michael Howard admitted that, at the time of Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, sales of the Bond books ‘accounted for a proportion of Cape’s income which corresponded closely to the total profit’. They were worried, too, about ‘the future of the dwindling band of private companies in the face of takeovers by large commercial corporations and American interests, and the powerful agglomerations of competing groups’.

One idea they had was to find a sympathetic company to band together with, and eventually in 1969, after two years discussion, they would go into partnership with Chatto & Windus (which had itself merged Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1945). As Chatto poet Jennifer Couroucli put it,

Chatto’s is merging with Jonathan Cape –

Better to marry than burn, 

Better to wed than give in to rape

By a tempting Big Business concern.

But Tom Maschler had one other idea to shore up business. He wanted to found a literary prize on the model of France’s Prix Goncourt, a prize of prizes that would help propel sales for the kind of literary novels published by Cape. What he needed most was a backer with serious money.

Before he had died, Michael Howard noted, Ian Fleming had arranged the ‘transfer of his copyrights to a complex web of trusts, and to his private company, Glidrose Productions, of which in 1964 he sold control to Booker Brothers for one hundred thousand pounds. Tax free, that sum seemed to Ian a good deal, but as an investment it proved cheap for Booker Brothers.’ Tax shelter schemes looked particularly attractive during Harold Wilson’s Labour government, but even so Bookers did get a good deal: buying up other copyrights, including those of Agatha Christie, their Author Services division made profits of £100,000 in 1968, four times that by mid-seventies.

It was a slightly odd offshoot of the company, which had been founded by George and Richard Booker in 1835 as a shipping company and quickly got into the sugar business in British Guiana. At its peak, the company owned over three quarters of all trading interests in the country, leading some to refer to the country as ‘Booker’s Guiana’. By the time Sir Jock Campbell first visited in 1934, he said, ‘I was as appalled as I was fascinated by the sugar industry. The workers were treated as chattels. I was told either I did not understand or that “they are a different sort of people”.’When he became chairman in 1952, he worked hard to correct some of these historical wrongs, offering free housing and loans to the workers, as well as medical and pension plans. It was the least he could do, really – by the mid-sixties sugar still employed half the country’s labour force. But much as Guiana needed them, Bookers began diversifying to make sure their fate did not rest on Guiana, particularly once it gained independence in 1966. And so, strange as it might seem, Bookers became one of the only companies, publishers included, that believed there was money to be made in the book industry.

When Tom Maschler approached Charles Tyrell, he and the other Booker execs might well have pointed out that Britain had a number of prizes already: the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize (1942), the Somerset Maugham (1946), the W H Smith (1959), Guardian Prize (1965), Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1965), Silver Pen (1968). But while some of them were prestigious, and in books one respects one’s elders, none could deliver the drama, nor the sales boost, of the Prix Goncourt. The idea was to make this Booker Prize not only the biggest literary prize in the English language, but to make it an event, to engage the public and even perhaps to persuade them that a book might be both literary and worth reading.

Because they conceived the project in those all-encompassing terms, the stated criterion for the winner was studiedly vague: the little trophy of a silver lady holding a bowl would go to ‘the best full-length novel in the opinion of the judges’. Early on, Maschler later said, ‘It seemed to me most desirable that there should be as much speculation as possible prior to the final announcement’, and they tweaked the rules to this end, publishing the shortlist separately a few weeks before the winner was announced, and arranging for the prize to be awarded in the autumn when the public buys most of its books – in fact, to be eligible in 1971, a book had to be published between 1st September and 15th November, though they later changed the rules to include books published across the year. From the start, the publisher would be obliged to advertise the winner to the tune of £500, which would have the effect of boosting the prize as well as the book. They also tried to introduce a ‘personality’ and a ‘book trade person’ into the judging panel, at a time when literature was still seen as the antithesis of popularity. Terence Kilmartin of the Observer strongly disapproved: ‘I have a feeling that these two categories of person are included in order to ensure that the book selected for the prize is a good commercial proposition. In the past this would certainly have excluded a large number of writers who have made a serious contribution to English Literature.’ A.W. Parsons, Literary Editor of the Daily Mail, wrote, ‘I cannot quite see the logic of including a “personality” in the panel. What about a librarian?’ Anthony Thwaite of the New Statesman went further, writing that ‘a serious literary panel should be made up of serious literary people, so that I can’t see the wisdom of having a “personality” and a “book-trade person”. Wouldn’t it be better to have four or five well-read people, whose judgement one respects?’

From the start, it seemed that the prize would be dogged by controversy. The 1971 judge Malcolm Muggeridge resigned from the jury, writing that the books ‘seem to me to be mere pornography in the worst sense of the word, and to lack any literary qualities or distinction which could possibly compensate for the unsavouriness of their contents,’ and after his departure a dispute broke out between judge John Fowles and the chair, John Gross, over the eligibility of V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, compounded by the fact that both Gross and fellow judge Antonia Fraser were friends with Naipaul, and also by an unofficial phone call from Tom Maschler to chip in with his own opinion on the matter. In the end they had a blind postal vote, and the book was voted eligible by three votes to two (Saul Bellow also thought Naipaul ineligible and, of the rest, said that only ‘five percent were interesting’). Thankfully the dispute didn’t make the news, though there was real controversy in 1972, when the winner John Berger denounced Booker Brothers as a ‘colonialist enterprise built on the backs of black plantation workers’, to angry heckles from the assembled guests in the Café Royal, and announced that he was giving half his prize money to the Black Panthers. The press turned up quickly, having been tipped off by Berger’s publisher, and the speech was widely reported. Maschler later wondered ‘why Berger did not either decline the prize altogether or give all the money to the Black Panthers’.But what might have seemed a disaster for the prize turned out to be an unexpected windfall: there were fifty press clippings about the prize in 1971, and two hundred in 1972.

Maschler writes that ‘the turning point for the Booker came in 1980. That year two heavyweights [William Golding and Anthony Burgess] were in competition and this resulted in a great deal of speculation’. Indeed, that was the decade that confirmed the Booker as the publishing event of the year. At its inception the prize had been worth £5,000; by 1989 it was worth £20,000 (partly to fight off an enormous bequest for a new prize from the reclusive novelist Betty Trask).Ron Pollard of Ladbrokes opened a book on the shortlist in 1984. The prize even began to be televised, to numerous complaints. Fay Weldon, who had beenchair of judges in 1983, wrote to organiser Martyn Goff after the event:‘My concern remains for the writer’s (and indeed Booker’s) rather rapidly diminishing dignity in the face of the TV cameras… If the moral base of the Prize is corrected, everything will fall gracefully into place. Though the winner can sensibly be announced at the Dinner, the short-listed authors and publishers must know who it is beforehand and accept or refuse the invitation in that awareness. Salman Rushtie [sic] said to me with some passion last Wednesday, “If I haven’t won it, what am I doing here? Tell me!” and I couldn’t. Because he is quite right: the whole accumulated frisson of the Prize seems to depend upon the humiliation of those who fail to win it, rather than on the satisfaction of those who do.’ But the press clippings were up 50 percent on the year before, and the TV cameras stayed.

Weldon’s second letter,to Michael Harris Caine, the chairman of Booker McConnell, makes for interesting reading:

‘In literature, as in any other field, if people can leave the making of decisions to anyone else, they’ll leap at the chance. I would hate to see a situation arising in say, five or ten years’ time, when if a writer happened not to win a prize, he or she was not taken seriously… Writing is increasingly a profession, not a surplus of literary animation taken publishable form. Novelists, even good ones, see themselves as having careers. “Let’s set out to win the Whitbread with this one!” Can’t you hear some editor saying it, steering theme, character and plot prizewards?’

Ten years later, Weldon attended a Booker Prize dinner as a guest. The honourable chairman of Booker came up to her and told her, ‘It is not by any wish of mine that you are here tonight.’

That would have been the year that Roddy Doyle won for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which sold just over 200,000 hardbacks by end of 1993. The next year, the paperback sold 355,000, grossing £2.1m in sales. If it had once seemed that literary quality had nothing to do with sales potential, some people were now beginning to wonder whether they need be mutually exclusive. Indeed, publishing was becoming big business. A 1993 Virago edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando sold 17,000 copies, exceeding the book’s world sales for the four years after its original publication. By that time, Cape and Chatto had been bought out by the American conglomerate Random House, which itself would be eaten by the Bertelsmann Group, which would later merge with Penguin. Maschler considered this conglomeration a ‘betrayal’.

The Booker Prize also found its centre of gravity drifting somewhere into the sea after shifting sponsorship in 2002 to the Man Group, a company founded 235 years ago as a sugar broker (what else) and which, despite still covering 16 percent of cross-border sugar trade in 1997, now describes its business as ‘technology-empowered active investment management focused on delivering performance and client portfolio solutions’. The Financial Times describes it as ‘the world’s largest publicly traded active management group’, and it has significant business in America. (Booker, meanwhile, has been eaten by Tesco for £4bn.) It was perhaps inevitable that the prize would be opened up to American writers, given how little else the sponsors demand of their prize – in fact, it is amazing that they didn’t do it sooner: Martyn Goff was saying back in the mid-eighties that ‘we have always wanted more interest in America’. It is too early to tell whether this rule change will hamper British or Commonwealth authors, but after fifty years we have enough historical biases to be getting on with.

Since 1969, 33 men and 16 women have won the prize – won at literature, in a world where those who don’t win prizes aren’t taken seriously. Jonathan Cape is the publisher with the highest number of winning titles (8), and the most shortlistings (31), all the more impressive if you count Chatto’s 3 wins and 18 shortlistings. By my count, imprints under the Penguin Random House group have won 19 of the previous 49 prizes, and have been shortlisted 103 times. Since 2014, when the prize opened to American writers, two have won the prize; four of the other winners hail from Australia, three from India, three from Canada, two from South Africa, two from New Zealand. If anyone is looking for a trend, a far greater number of authors – Kingsley Amis, Anita Brookner, Nadine Gordimer, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Storey, Salman Rushdie – were published by Tom Maschler. The shortlist for 2018 makes it a one-in-three chance that the winner will be American, a one-in-three chance that the winner will be a Cape author, and a one-in-six chance of being a current Jonathan Cape editor.

In the late sixties, there had been two pressing concerns for Jonathan Cape. The first was to avoid falling into close orbit with big business, particularly of the kind that was already taking hold in America. The second was to boost the sales of the high quality writing that Cape itself published by founding a high profile prize. But despite succeeding spectacularly in the latter, they had no way of avoiding the former, for Cape found that those authors on their list who didn’t win The Prize struggled to sell much as they ever had. Now, Jonathan Cape has become the model for a literary list nested in a larger conglomerate, whose first duty is to win the prizes, and the Booker Prize above all. Which, since the values of the prize were first articulated by the director of Jonathan Cape, should not be so very hard to do.

 

This essay was first published in Issue 3 of the Brixton Review of Books in September 2018. You can subscribe to the next four issues of the Brixton Review of Books for £10. 

On Chris Power’s Mothers

Chris Power’s first collection of short stories, MOTHERS, is peopled by the restless – forever walking, running, travelling, holidaying, city-hopping, doing anything not to stand still. They are displaced, impulsive, sometimes desperate. The narrator of one story summarises it as ‘the lightness of being far from home, the pleasure and terror of being free to do as I liked.’ It carries the logic, though decidedly not the tone, of picaresque: travellers, like orphans, are liberated to situate themselves from scratch, living without ready-made definitions.

This is certainly true of the three linked ‘Mother’ stories that structure the collection, which concern Eva: first remembering her childhood in Sweden; then travelling along the Costa Blanca; finally married with a daughter of her own. She leads an unhappy life in the shadow of her parents’ death, and travel becomes a way of outrunning her problems, though even here she is following her own mother around Europe, carrying around her guidebook and allowing it to fall open at spine-cracked pages, as if consulting the mother’s spirit. ‘It seemed to help if I kept moving,’ she confesses finally. ‘Whenever I stopped moving everything became… too much.’

Young Eva, in ‘Summer 1976’, reads food into everything: stacks of LPs are liquorice, the air stands thick as jam or greasy with a coming storm. On a dare, the boy who lives next door throws an apple into one of the windows of their apartment block, where it bursts against the wall. (But does she have to be Eva, and does it have to be an apple, so that the story drags around with it the creaking weight of the Biblical malum malum?) Later, after her mother’s death, her taste for life seems to dull. She inherits her mother’s mute desperation; boys are now men, but they embody the same tension between threat and attraction. Later still, tethered to a marriage and a daughter of her own, she loses all energy: stuck in one place, with no water running over her gills, she is reduced, depressed and couch bound.

Listless and withholding, Eva is an unusual character to give the limelight, but in many respects she occupies the thematic heart of the book, caught as she is between the need for love and the compulsion to slip her bonds. MOTHERS begins and ends in Sweden, perhaps the only true centre of gravity for this cosmopolitan crowd of stories. There is also the force of the unspoken, particularly between parent and child: ‘It seemed wrong to ask Mum what she had been thinking about when she was sitting on my bed,’ Eva recalls. ‘It felt like something that would lose its power if we spoke about it.’ In narrative, of course, information does not want to be free, and this ambiguity is what drives all these stories so craftily – partial information, subjective impression, the effort of reading others.

The actions of both men and women are hard to explain away, though they almost always fall short of a partner’s expectations. The men can be slow to know themselves, sometimes drinking as a cover for impulse or physically imposing themselves on their surroundings, whereas the women quietly follow their own path, quietly not saying what they mean. Close relationships, whether familial or romantic, constantly challenge characters’ volition – if travel represents pure freedom, love seems to narrow down one’s options. But without it, there is only the brutal indifference of the wider universe. At the end of a long night, rejected by a lover, a young man watches ‘dawn destroy the stars’.

Power writes arrestingly, particularly about nature, as when a character lies down on the grass and watches ‘leaves divide the sky into shifting fractions of blue’, the phrase simultaneously poetic and precise, with its wonderful rolling rhythm bearing the computational language of division, shifting, fractions. MOTHERS is also brilliantly controlled (for any collection of stories, let alone a first collection). Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Power has been interrogating the form for over a decade – his ‘Brief survey of the short story’ series in THE GUARDIAN has long outgrown its name, numbering 72 articles at the time of writing. On this score, it is tempting to attempt genetic criticism. When Power was writing ‘The Hävang Dolmen’, for instance, with its insensible screaming youth and its coffin-like dolmen, was he thinking of his entry on Franz Kafka, where he wrote about the ‘complex meshing of everyday reality and nightmare… and a world that looks like the one inhabited by you and me, but in which the inner turmoil of the psyche is on the loose’? Is it significant that his first profile was of Anton Chekhov, ‘the author laureate of not knowing’?

Eva once quotes her therapist to the effect that ‘all stories, whatever they’re about, are about you anyway’, and we do find self-conscious elements in a few stories. Any reader reserves the right to skip over paragraphs in which a character gets writer’s block, as in ‘Above the Wedding’, but it is put to better use in ‘Johnny Kingdom’, whose main character is a comedian condemned to stag parties performing another, more famous comedian’s routine (‘He rejects “impersonator”, and resists “tribute act”, although he knows it comes closest’).

Perhaps the most intimate story also appears to be the most self-conscious. ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ runs on two parallel tracks: in the first, the narrator is on holiday in Cephalonia with his wife and two daughters; in the second, he remembers a family holiday as a boy in Rhodes, making him simultaneously parent and child. Power captures the narrator’s parental urge to protect as he covers his children in sun cream, while his young daughter asserts her freedom by standing on her own at the bus stop ‘in a way she considers extremely grown-up’.

Conversely, as a boy, his desire for autonomy comes at the expense of his own wellbeing: while playing an arcade game alone, he is groped in broad daylight by a smiling old man, and later, while lagging behind his family, he finds a dying cat and becomes responsible for putting it out of its misery. Power addresses the reader directly, explaining that ‘it’s a cat in the story because a kitten would be too much’, and that in real life the kitten was killed purely for sport by some local children. ‘Maybe it’s because I never spoke about these things to anyone that I find it so difficult to shape them into a story now,’ he writes. Here, the unspoken becomes a curse, and storytelling a balm, as it will later become for Eva. Stories seem to offer a way of ordering and editing experience – ‘they don’t have to be “true” true’, Eva’s therapist explains – and in doing so, they offer the chance to defang the past. But the chasm, in ‘Colossus’, between the official and unofficial accounts, might leave us wary of fictions that attempt to shield us from the blow.

There is a tendency to think of short stories as episodes while novels are journeys – a sentiment expressed by the most recent winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Cynan Jones. That works for some writers – certainly it works for Jones – but a collection of stories like MOTHERS needs a different definition. MOTHERS takes a theme too complex to approach except obliquely – the conflict between love and freedom – and, like a particle accelerator, repeatedly fires ideas at it to see what can be inferred from the collision. Power writes mothers, but also daughters, sons, lovers, families and bickering couples, testing different ages, sexualities, genders and cultures to create a composite which arrives at more than the sum of its parts – not a clutch of episodes, but a single, unified, many-sided work, best read cover to cover.

 

First published by The White Review.

How to fix Amazon reviews: let me count the ways

Amazon introduced its five star customer ratings system over two decades ago as a way to improve clickthrough and sales. At first, each book’s rating was the pure average of all its customer reviews. But no one ever said that system was perfect.

Six years ago there was a widespread scandal of ‘sockpuppetry’ in the world of book reviews. Then, three years ago, Amazon sued four sites selling reviews for pay, and began using machine learning to give books a weighted average biased in favour of new reviews, verified purchases and reviews people had marked as ‘helpful’. But in 2018, despite their huge influence on customers, Amazon reviews still suck.

It won’t surprise anyone that Amazon has opted for a standard tech solution to a human problem, but there are so many simple things they could do with their community, which would turn the fact that it is a group of people into a strength, rather than a weakness. Here are five suggestions:

1. Split reviews of the delivery and the product.

I can’t believe this hasn’t been done already. It’s so depressing to see someone’s gnomic whinge about the meaning of ‘standard delivery’ lumped in with an assessment of a story’s quality. It punishes the writer for the sins of the delivery guy. How can anyone equate packaging with imagination? Audible splits its reviews into story and narrator – why can’t Amazon do something similar?

2. Give reviewers a more transparent rating.

Rather than marking out the ‘Top 500 reviewers’, or marking reviews as ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’, follow Uber’s lead and give the customers themselves a starred average. Don’t show reviews by those who abuse the system.

3. Only show reviews once a reviewer has posted more than three.

Airbnb doesn’t list a host’s rating at all until their third review gets posted, partly to give a fair average, but also to prioritise those who are engaging seriously with the platform.

4. If a reviewer hasn’t ‘made a Verified Purchase’ (or as a human might put it, bought it from Amazon), don’t allow their post to appear automatically.

Perhaps they have to write a substantial review of more than 100 words, as many bloggers do – it would make it harder for online communities to ‘brigade’ books for ideological reasons. Though not impossible.

5. Make reviews more social and sociable.

When Amazon bought GoodReads in 2013 for a reported $150 million it already had 16 million ‘users’ (an oddly narcotic expression for readers) on its site, and it now has 65 million. For all that they must have rejoiced in the extra user data and recommendation algorithms, they missed a really big reason that people like it: as a speculative purchase, books feel like a comparatively huge investment of time and money, and a lot of people will only buy a book that was recommended by someone they know and trust.

Some of these suggestions might actually make it harder to engage with reviews, and the idea of adding friction goes against the fundamental ethos of Silicon Valley (and, apparently, Seattle). It could mean some books have two reviews, rather than twenty. But if we are seeking quality, we should look to sites like Wikipedia, which allow anyone superficial engagement but which put up barriers to participation where it matters, with locked articles, forum discussions, roving admins and so on, to make sure not just that people are doing stuff on the site, but that it is a virtuous cycle, improving the community and the content. Because the worst thing about Amazon reviews is that, well, a lot of them just aren’t very good.

 

First published on The Bookseller.