How to win at literature

This essay was first published in Issue 3 of the Brixton Review of Books in September 2018.

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 Orlandosold 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.

 

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Agent Hunter Q&A

This is a Q&A I did with Agent Hunter, run by the Writers’ Workshop to help aspiring writers find the right agent and get tips on the publishing process.

 

Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.

I love Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series – they’re so quick and cunning, and she evokes her landscape with spare but telling detail, whether they’re in the French countryside or on the Italian coast. She also carries the plot with a tight cast of just three or four main characters and a couple to support. It’s masterful. I also love Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series (the original three, not that godawful Hannibal Rising). Harris pulls you along with great twists and a worthy adversary, but you learn about memory palaces and harpsichords along the way, which is somehow just really cool. It sounds as if I only read books about psychopaths, but I’d rather say I’m compelled by characters who operate with impunity.

 

Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!

This is tough. I got into publishing because I love literature and so it would be a tempting cop-out to say ‘books that are just really good.’ Why do I read a book when I could be seeing my friends or watching TV? I think really good books speak to us about what it means to be human beyond the everyday – to live, to grow up, to love, to fail, to die. Novels can be about anything on the surface but I think ultimately they need to address those universal concerns, which the best writers do: George Saunders, George Orwell, Cormac McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Julian Barnes, David Foster Wallace. I don’t think writing needs to be ‘difficult’ to be good. J K Rowling, David Nicholls and Mark Haddon write very different books but they make you invest deeply in their characters, and you have to keep turning pages to find out if they’re going to be okay.

 

Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?

I guess this isn’t my natural core of interests, but I do like high concepts and speculative fiction. I’d have loved to see a book like The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, about the day the Earth’s rotation mysteriously slowed down (though I thought the idea was better than the execution). Or Under the Skin by Michel Faber, which gets weirder and weirder but in a way that somehow feels very organic – an extension of the world that I know.

 

Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?

I think good non-fiction should strive to improve our understanding of the world around us. It’s a wide brief, and I am as interested in biography (Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère) as in books about economics (Ha Joon Chang) or science (Philip Ball, Jared Diamond, Jim al-Khalili). I particularly love reading accessible books by academics about their field, or by journalists who are investigating an untold story. My current list encompasses hard science, social history, true crime, current affairs and memoir.

 

Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?

I would say I’m not the right person for royal or military history – those books are published so often and so well that it would be hard to make a lasting contribution.

 

Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?

At the moment I have more non-fiction than fiction, but I am building my list, and the difference is that with fiction I am looking for authors who I can back for their whole writing careers, whereas with non-fiction it may be that someone only has one book they want to write – a true story they’ve found or an account of a long research project. Finding novelists is harder, but when you love their writing it will hopefully last a long time – I’m proud to be working on the third novel by my first client, Lisa O’Donnell, at the moment.

 

Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?

I want something to happen. Too often writers see the opening as a period of grace where they need to get all the boring backstory and set up out the way. Kurt Vonnegut said you should ‘start as close to the end as possible.’ If you know about the main character’s family going back four generations, I’m pleased for you – you’ve done your research. But are you telling me because it’s really part of the story, or to prove something else? Imagine someone has picked up your book in a shop (a shop full of books) and has allocated about five seconds to glance at the first page to see if it looks interesting.

 

Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?

I did this year. I represent Nick Louth, a thriller writer who self-published on the Kindle Direct Platform. He had sold around 50,000 copies in one month (he’s now sold five times that number), and we decided to work together on a traditional UK publication. His book will come out in 2015 with Sphere (part of Little, Brown), and will be published separately in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and, oddly, Serbian.

 

Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?

Editing is not a compromise. Editing is saving you embarrassment when the critics get hold of it. Editing is your kind old teacher quietly mentioning that your flies are undone before any of your classmates has noticed.

 

Q: Which 3 famous people (alive or deceased) would you invite to a dinner party and why?

I should say straight off the bat that these are not necessarily my favourite writers. But which writers would really ‘bring the party’? Milton, for instance, is one of the greatest writers in the English language but also a bit of a killjoy.

I would invite Hemingway, for his anecdotes and his general drinking stamina; Tolstoy, for his sheer barefooted craziness; Angela Carter, who I think would somehow keep the night on track while giving as good as she got. Plus, I would pay a lot of money to see her and Hemingway arguing. The conversation would teeter on the absolute brink of madness and genius.