Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? by Peter Cowlam, reviewed by Sophie Fitzpatrick

Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?
I gather the English literati didn’t much like these barbs aimed at a cosy literary establishment, something I might have predicted once this book had landed on my desk, with a note asking if I had time to review it. I could have saved its publisher the trouble of agonising over whether its pitch to the Folio Prize committee – or ‘Academy’ as it likes to flatter itself – would be successful or not. There is naïve logic in proposing it in the first place – a novel whose title is the provocative Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? After all, what we have is a well-meaning group of bookish entrepreneurs, less than delighted at the perceived dumbing down of the Man Booker Prize, so much so it invented a prize of its own (embryonically the Literature Prize, but now fully birthed as the Folio Prize). You would have thought those committee people or academicians might at least have asked themselves what this Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? was all about. But apparently not.

Its protagonist is a thirty-something male called Alistair Wye, who thinks he understands professional relationships, in this instance in the narrow context of London and its publishing culture. Happily, I am outside that parochial little enclave, but have gleaned something of it through Peter Cowlam’s carefully honed prose. Central to that culture is the mutual destruction of public reputation, an extinction conceived in this account as the slow strangulation of the writer’s soul. The soul is a writer’s with a line into B-movie tie-ups. All other such executions are committed gradually, over time, and that makes it difficult to determine who is the murderer, who is the murderee (to recycle that literary infelicity). Perhaps it doesn’t matter, when the point is the drama and not the drama’s outcome. This is certainly so for Wye, amanuensis to star literary figure Marshall Zob, who can’t seem to win the one prize he thinks should crown all other attainments (the Booker, to which we may now have to add the Folio). In his formal manifestation, and in terms of the stultifying British class system he operates in, Wye has a distant social ancestry in the English butler, servile being with a good grasp and overview of everything – for Wye the literary blow or hand job, indeed any other conflation, fellation, or whatever venality public success has called for.

On the face of it, Wye is so much wiser than the cultured prigs he serves, albeit equivocally so. He is shrewd and thinks tactically. His antagonist and boss Zob is but the illusion of cultured liberalism, who underneath the pretence is uncomfortably aware that this is all just a veneer, a mere marketing ploy, with the additional benefit of stroking his sexual appetites. His one-time tutor and advocate, Dr Andrew Glaze, is deluded enough to have given his protégé the gloss of literary kudos. A series of letters that has passed between them is the monetary yardstick of their relationship, Zob deciding to flog off that material into the marketplace once his mentor has had the decency to shuffle off his coil. Wye couldn’t care much about that, and continues to dream his dreams of getaway, of high-performance cars and speedy escape.

By virtue of close observation, he knows how the farce he is put upon to oversee will end. Yet he floats, amused, at a level somewhere above its ‘social decay’, phenomenon he is primarily witness to. His emotions are those of the satirist, skewed and unsentimental. The only feminists he ever seems to have encountered are career-minded solipsists (bar one, who, in a theatrical sense, is an angel). Speed and technology and contempt for the literati are the holy triad in the only art movement he is able to tolerate. The women are whorish (bar one, who, in a theatrical sense, etc.), but it’s the men who lose face (Zob), or worse, die (Glaze). They are defeated, and their defeat is devoid of meaning. Now all Wye has to do is chronicle their fall in his diary, a sardonic narrative scrupulously attended to, and one expertly infolded into the letters and postcards he is tasked to catalogue, those missives penned by the faceless Zob and the dead Andrew Glaze.

It’s all a sad exercise in intellectual dishonesty and the mania for celebrity, and, depressingly, is most probably an accurate reflection of the life and writing times of a little place called London.

Sophie Fitzpatrick is a translator from Sydney, Australia, currently working in Hong Kong. She has an ancestral interest in Scottish independence.

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press, paperback, 261 pp, £9.99. See all purchase options here.

No comments: