- Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today
Considering how enormous the book-prize industry has become, how ubiquitous its rhetoric of competition, achievement, and reward, scholarly literature on the topic is surprisingly slim. There is no basic history of the modern literary prize that traces its emergence at the turn of this century from such earlier phenomena as classical drama prizes, university poetry and essay prizes, laureateships, royal society medals, [End Page 529] and state prizes. There is no sociology of the book prize that attempts to situate the prize as a particular form of symbolic capital, or a particular instrument of exchange, within the contemporary economy of literary reward and esteem. And there are virtually no studies of individual prizes that do more than recount anecdotally the most amusing or scandalous moments in a prize’s history or blandly summarize the careers and relative merits of the prizewinners. In general, scholars have turned their attention to literary prizes only when their interest in a particular writer has led them to do so: Poundians have produced much commentary on Pound’s Bollingen Prize, Sartre scholars have detailed Sartre’s refusal of the Nobel, and so on. The proposition that book prizes are more than a nuisance and a folly, that they are in and of themselves a worthy object of academic study, has scarcely been creditable among serious literary critics and historians.
In this respect, Richard Todd’s Consuming Fictions makes a definite contribution. Focused specifically on Britain’s Booker Prize for Fiction and on some of the novels and novelists that have effectively defined the field of contenders for that prize over the past two decades, Consuming Fictions is the first study I have seen that sets out to understand the powerful and complex role such prizes have come to play in our culture. And rather than taking for granted, as most of the Booker’s many detractors are inclined to do, that this role must be a destructive one, that prizes have served primarily to further the encroachment of commercial logic onto the literary field and the consequent dilution or degradation of literary value, Todd argues for their essential beneficence. The combination of forces that has “spawned the growth of those prizes, enhanc[ing] their power,” he remarks in his introduction, has also “enhanced our culture.”
This thesis, as I will discuss in a moment, is not very firmly anchored in the particulars of the book, which include new and valuable insights into the changing relationships between what Todd calls “the mechanics of commerce” and “the formation of a particular kind of literary canon.” Though the Booker is his central concern, Todd makes clear that the tremendous success of this prize—the dominant place it now holds on Britain’s literary calendar, the great hoopla of publicity that surrounds it, the phenomenal sales boost it can represent, and the many imitators, or “baby bookers,” it has spawned—can only be understood in the context of larger shifts in both the economic [End Page 530] and the symbolic markets for culture, shifts of which it is both a cause and an effect. His first three chapters, which not only provide the most in-depth account yet published of the history and internal workings of the Booker Prize but also detail the growing role of the major chain booksellers in marketing “quality” fiction, the increased importance for British publishers of the American book market, and, more generally, the convergence in Britain of “bestsellerdom” and canonicity, can stand beside the work of John Sutherland as exemplary contributions to the sociology of British literature.
Somewhat less valuable are the six chapters that follow, in which Todd offers a series of literary-critical readings of novels by the authors who have contended for Booker Prizes since the early 1980s. Todd’s intention here is to sketch out the contours of the “particular kind of literary canon” that the Booker has helped to produce, and he does succeed to an extent, though it must be said that some...