Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Return of the Mid-list.

Paul Beatty's winning this year's Booker Prize for "The Sellout" - a 2nd triumph in two years for Oneworld Publishing - seems to highlight a few other trends. The idea of an A-list of authors - or literary celebrities - has long seemed out of date. In the UK there hasn't been another "generation" with the same clout as the Amis-Barnes-McEwan one, and it seems that authors with big books - e.g. David Mitchell with "Cloud Atlas" - haven't necessarily become the cultural arbiters in our less cerebral age. In the US, the big advance, the first novelist, the blockbuster writer of the American epic still exists of course, its part of the culture. Yet with big names such as DeLillo and Roth and Atwood and Morrison still around, its not as if the culture hasn't its peacocks.

Yet in the real world of publishing, its instructive to think of those writers toiling away - what used to be called "the mid-list" - with the support from a small, loyal readership, and a diligent and supportive editor and agent.... the mid-list had seemingly disappeared as publishing houses made all their money on the blockbuster hit, and put their money on the wunderkind debutant. Yet looking at Booker winners over the last few years, its the mid-list, coming up to speed with their second, third or - in Beatty's case - fourth book, that have been the recent winners. The brilliant debut is rarer than the myth it seems - and likely to be a bildungsroman rather than the more ambitious novels of early or mid-career. Interestingly, Beatty is far from being an ingenue - his first novel published in the mid-1990s, and they've come out with sluggish infrequency since. Notably his publishers have tended to change with each book, usually a sign that the books have been hard fought for.

Not since Adiga's "The White Tiger" in 2008 has a debut won the Booker, though writers like Catton and James almost appeared to be debutants. Its a reminder that rather than being the long-term achievement award it is sometimes criticised for beinng, the Booker is actually quite obliging in supporting the mid-list, and therefore supporting literary culture in general. It makes it a bit deaf to iconoclastic debuts or writers, more akin to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, awarding to a writer who has reached a certain career peak. Mantel of course was the archetypal mid-lister before "Wolf Hall" made her a literary superstar.

It's 3 years into the Booker's internationalism, and true to form, its shortlists and longlists have tended to a third British, a third American, a third other. That means its now 4 years since there was a British winner of Britain's primary book award. Its always been an odd beast, of course, British publishing embracing non-British writers such as Lessing and Rushdie as its own, and there's always the ambiguity of the literary Irish of course. Beatty seems to have won - in  a year after "Citizen" and at the tag end of Obama's presidency - with an on-point novel about America's contemporary crisis, so doesn't, in retrospect, seem so much of a surprise. The Booker usually prizes readability, even when a more experimental novel wins, so its interesting reading that its a difficult book - but also a satire, the first to win since "The Finkler Question" then.

As ever the BBC's live coverage - squeezed into half an hour on BBC news channel - was appalling, and makes me wonder why when a baking show can have spin offs, or Glastonbury be broadcast in its entirety, why they can't or won't make more of the Booker. That's our literary culture of course. For Beatty, who gave a humble, emotional speech, this will be a big profile raiser, for the rest of the short and longlist there have been sales boosts. The prize culture moves on. Next stop the Nobel awards - lets see if Dylan turns up. 

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