‘Most Famous Prize in the English Language’Goliath could relate to the problem experienced in the past few days by the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and its second prize, the Man Booker International Prize for work translated into English.
People who work at the biggest and most visible of any sort of influential organization understand that at the slightest stumble, kids with slingshots jump out from behind the shrubbery. Based in the UK, the Booker Foundation’s two prizes are the world’s gold standards for literature awards. So when they hit a bump, the rocks start flying.
On Sunday (January 27), a statement from the Booker Prize Foundation announced that the Man Group, an investment management firm, would end its sponsorship of 18 years–after contributing what the Man Group says is £25 million (US$32.7 million) to support literature through the work of the foundation.
Some gripes are the simple cosmetic kind, of course, having to do with the barrage of branding through which we must discern the world these days. On social media, you can find quips about having to relearn the name of the prize. But, then, what once was the Orange and then the Baileys is now the Women’s Prize for Fiction (with Baileys still onboard as one of several sponsors)–and many have not only relearned that one but have been pleased for the chance to call an important award what it is, a prize specifically dedicated to the work of women authors.
The “Booker” part of the Man Booker Prize’s name refers not to books but to the foundation’s abiding sponsor, the pervasive UK food wholesaler. Without “Man” or “Booker,” these major prizes would be left with little to their names other than “for Fiction” and “International.”
And some on Twitter have enjoyed speculating what could lie ahead.
Indeed, branding in our contemporary world of corporate overhangs sometimes gets seriously amusing.
- Wincham Park in Northwich reportedly has been called Britannia Carpets Stadium, Bargain Booze Stadium, and The Help For Heroes Stadium at various times in its years of service to the community
- WhatABurger Field is a minor league baseball stadium in Corpus Christi, Texas
- The Mitsubishi Forklift Stadion holds 3,000 sports fans comfortably in the Netherlands
- And the pet supply chain might have chosen a team named for an animal instead of buying naming rights to Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres
But of more concern is the kind of bashing the Man Booker program has taken since Saturday’s announcement.
World Leaders in Awards Marketing
The UK market is probably more richly blessed than any other with book prizes and publishing awards. This is something many in other countries envy, and rightly so.
“A decade after the global financial crisis, the [investment] industry remains in the naughty corner, un-trusted and unloved”Mark Gilbert, Bloomberg
The British are leaders in capitalizing on awards attention to create excitement around reading and books. New awards seem to pop up frequently. The mature programs are watched and debated, odds are placed, wagers are made, books are bought and often are presented as gifts wrapped in handsome prize credibility: “I’ve been given the new Dylan Thomas winner” and “This one got the Wellcome Prize, you know.”
And when it comes to influence in the industry and marketplace, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction may be approached only by the Nobel—which has suffered self-inflicted problems of its own in recent years—and the Pulitzer. Not far behind are the UK’s Costa (which has just announced its Book of the Year winner overnight) and the States’ National Book Awards, a program working to increase its traction, not least with a new international translation prize of its own.
The “Nibbies,” or British Book Awards, have been revived to robust effect since being bought in 2016 by The Bookseller and managed by Nigel Roby, Philip Jones, Emma Lowe, and the team.
Rathbones (another investment company) was named the Folio Prize’s sponsor, also in 2016.
The Canada-based Cundill History Prize has been revived in the last two years as a study in accessible history writing with growing international reach, and it’s heartening to see many prizes rising to the fore—the British Academy’s Al-Rodhan Prize is one, as are the PEN suite of awards—to carry literature’s best answers to isolationism and xenophobia much farther than their winning titles could travel without award attention.
Clearly, book and publishing awards are good for the art—particularly amid new efforts at inclusivity—and good for the business. So to some who look on from outside the UK, these disgruntled noises coming out of the UK about the Booker may seem surprising.
Man’s CEO Luke Ellis was gracious in his own statement, saying, in part, “It has been a privilege to sponsor the Man Booker Prizes for nearly two decades. Following a careful review of our funding initiatives, we have taken the decision to focus our resources on our ‘Paving the Way’ diversity and inclusion campaign, as well as activities led by the Man Charitable Trust, which supports educational causes that promote literacy and numeracy.
“This was a natural point to re-evaluate our focus areas as our sponsorship agreement comes to an end.
“During the course of Man Group’s sponsorship, we have celebrated 25 winning authors from across the world and more than 400 authors have been recognized for their extraordinary work. This period also saw the launch of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005, which was one of the first literary awards to celebrate the work of international authors and, in recent years, to celebrate fiction in translation.”
And yet, two key points about the Man Booker Prize programs–the source of sponsorship and its eligibility framework–have come in for new rounds of complaint since Sunday’s news of the Man Group’s departure. The partnership won’t conclude until the end of the 2019 awards cycle. Both the fiction and international prizes are going forward this year as before, while the foundation says its trustees already are in talks with another sponsor to take over in 2020.
The Source of the Money Argument
One bone of contention has been a view long held by some that a hedge fund like the Man Group is fundamentally opposed to the authentic mission of culture in a society. This was put into words last year by author Sebastian Faulks, who called the investment fund “the enemy” and said that Man represents the kind of business that “literary prizes ought to be criticizing.”
But at Bloomberg, in an opinion piece from Mark Gilbert, the Man Group and the Booker Foundation find an articulate ally, turning his attention to the image of the investment business rather than to the arts which need sponsorship.
“The furor sparked by Man Group Plc’s decision to end its sponsorship of the UK’s leading literary prize highlights an uncomfortable truth.” Gilbert writes. “A decade after the global financial crisis, the industry remains in the naughty corner, un-trusted and unloved. Supporters of capitalism should take note.
“On the face of it, society should applaud a system that takes some of the fees levied by a hedge fund on its wealthy clients and redistributes them among some of the most creative and underpaid members of the artistic community. But the literary world has always been a bit sniffy about the Man Booker Prize being backed by the world’s biggest publicly traded hedge fund.”
The ‘Evolved’ Man Booker and America
As you may know, the Booker was created in 1968 as a prize honoring Commonwealth literature. Not without controversy, the prize rules were changed—or “evolved,” in Booker terminology—in late 2013 to include writers outside the UK and the Commonwealth.
“Without corporate sponsorship, the work of bringing books into the lives of as many people as possible becomes ever harder.”Joanna Prior, Women's Prize for Fiction
In this era when internationalism is emblematic for the political recidivism that plagues many societies in the West, the foundation has been accused by some of opening the Man Booker Prize for Fiction to American domination.
This is still baffling to some Americans who feel that they look to the UK for literary leadership, and have been flattered and proud that two Americans, Paul Beatty (The Sellout, 2016) and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, 2017), have won the prize since its “evolution.”
The reception among the prize’s critics, however, has been much less welcoming, and after the weekend’s announcement, some are saying that the end of the Man Group’s sponsorship is a good time for the foundation to reverse its policy change, drawing eligibility back in to just the Commonwealth.
When Alison Flood and Sian Cain at The Guardian covered the weekend news, they spoke with one of London’s leading literary agents, Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown, who said, “I don’t know where the suggestion to open it up to become a global prize came from”–some say that the Man Group lobbied for the change–”but wherever it did, I think it was seen as a mistake and to have slightly backfired.
“Everyone in publishing needs whatever help they can get to get books into people’s hands, and these prizes do that, so we all want it to work.”
The Women’s Prize board chair Joanna Prior is quoted, pointing out that “Without corporate sponsorship, the work of bringing books into the lives of as many people as possible becomes ever harder.”
An unnamed publisher notes to Flood and Cain that the foundation’s messaging indicates it’s well on its way to new sponsorship to replace that of the Man Group, saying, “It sounds like they already have someone lined up.”
In his Bloomberg piece, Gilbert makes the point, “’Capitalism is not immoral, it’s amoral,’ as Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, said at Davos last week.”
And The Guardian‘s line from that publisher reminds us that even a Goliath is to be respected–maybe especially when things aren’t going easily: “The Booker brand is still the Booker brand, the most famous prize in the English language, full stop.”