It upsets people. I say I don’t need to read whatever the latest bilge from Martin Amis or Ian McEwan or Hilary Mantel is. What do I need with racism, reason or the forelock-tugging worship of dead aristocrats? But how, my interlocutors ask, can I be so confident of the worthlessness of these works? Only they’re not worthless, they exercise more power than we are willing to recognise in what is relegated to weekend supplements and ‘mere art’. Yet I still know what they are without reading them, and I will try to say why here. We might say the same not only for these supremely popular authors of ‘literary fiction’, but for the nominees of the Booker Prize, which was awarded last night [14th October 2014], to Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I already know what the Booker Prize offers, not the stories of the books, but their ideological content, because the Booker Prize cannot offer anything different. The whole deployment and design of the prize is designed to limit the opportunities of anything different.
Why though does this matter? Even the winners of the Booker Prize do not sell many copies in the great scheme of things. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, had, by 2012 sold in excess of 5 million copies, whilst a recent Booker Prize winner can expect to sell something in the range of 100,000 to 300,000. The Booker Prize is influential and powerful though. It is given wide-ranging coverage in the broadsheet newspapers and on Radio 4’s news programmes, and its winners and nominees will be read by people who hold significant power in British society; you can be sure that several senior politicians will mention a nominee when they’re next asked about their reading. What’s more, it’s sponsored by a ‘investment group’, for Christ’s sake (perhaps the only analysis that the Booker needs), and of course they get something out of it.
The Booker Prize then makes culture visible. It selects and promotes various cultural products and makes them available, and particularly, available to power. It is particularly well placed to do this because it has cultural and financial capital behind it. Its importance is partly measured in its prize money of £50,000, five times that of the moderately more interesting James Tait Black Memorial Prize, for example.
In his Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière describes what he calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (in the sense of what is available to the senses). It is ‘the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it. A distribution of the sensible therefore establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts’. The Booker Prize is an excellent example of a distribution of the sensible. It makes available literary work to the community at large, but at the same time selects, from the mass of literary works, ‘exclusive parts’. It says that these parts, these works, must be taken notice of at the expense of the exclusion of other works. Of course, all literary prizes do this; all of them partake in various exercises of power. One can say further, every viewer, spectator, consumer, reader, recipient of art, also takes part in an exercise of power related to the distribution of the sensible, excluding and recognising work in their sensorium and transmitting that exclusion and recognition in their own discourses about art. But the Booker Prize, because it works for and speaks to the power of the state and big business is especially pernicious in this respect.
Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible that is exercised by power ‘the police’, in a much wider sense than the state’s police force. For Rancière, ‘the essence of the police is to be a partition [distribution] of the sensible characterized by the absence of a void or a supplement’. Thus the police demand that everything must be the same. This begins, even before the books, by the list of largely execrable judges, this year chaired by the private university operator and liberal philosopher A. C. Grayling and the deathly boring literary critic Jonathan Bate. Nominees then come from Britain, America and, for the most part, the Westernised nations of the Commonwealth. Two-thirds of them are men (and twice as many men have won the prize than women). One does not even have to reach the literature itself, which, it is frequently pointed out, is predominantly in the style of ‘sentimental humanism’, to realise that there is nothing new here. In wholly predictable fashion then, Grayling calls this year’s winner: ‘timeless, it is not just about the second world war, it is about any war and it is about the effect on a human being’. In doing so he erases any historical specificity the novel might have, and universalises the human subject, despite it being a novel about Burma in the Second World War, where race plays an undoubted part. I don’t know if the novel itself addresses these issues, it might well do, but the power of the Booker is to determine the conditions for understanding the novel independent of its actual content. Not only does it exclude, but it actively lessens and obscures possibilities for radicalism and critical thought in the novels it distributes, as an operation of their distribution.
Indeed, the Booker’s very modus operandi is to obscure any radical potential the novel could have, the radical potential to bring to view the experiences of those in the global South, of women, for the most part, or the stylistic and formal ways of writing, speaking and visualising the world which could offer different visions of life. Why needn’t I read the Booker nominees to be able to comment on what they mean culturally then? Because, even before the covers are opened, their meaning is already determined by the mode in which the ‘police’ function of the Booker prize itself has made them visible to me as reader.
For all this though there are moments where voids and supplements do open up. In the past John Berger (whose novel G. has sold one of the lowest numbers of copies of a Booker Prize winner), and J.M. Coetzee have won. This year Ali Smith was shortlisted and was the only suitable winner, which of course meant she wouldn’t win. Why would the police distribution of the sensible even acknowledge such experimental works, while never awarding them the prize? Precisely to say to the readers to whom they make them available, ‘this is not for you, this is experimental, difficult, and so has no bearing on your normal experiences of life. It is for experts only’. How then to resist this? Ask: Why should these works only be for a select few? Why should the experimental be rarefied? Doesn’t the experimental offer ways of totally reconceptualising what our everyday lives mean and look like? There have been moments where the experimental has been recognised as for everybody: in the films of Chaplin, in the flourishing of art in the early days of the Soviet Union, in Shakespeare’s theatre. We can reassert this again through a rejection of the politics of the Booker Prize.