Oh McCrumbs! It’s the Booker again!

by Daniel Hartley

As an example of sheer tautological inanity, you’d be hard-pushed to beat Robert McCrum’s Guardian blog post. Having reminded us of the air of cultural crisis surrounding this year’s Booker prize (about which I have written at length here) he goes on to make two wonderfully circular claims:

1. “Barnes’s 11th novel is perhaps not his best, and nowhere near as original as Flaubert’s Parrot, but it is a work of art, and conforms to the high standard set by previous winners.”
2. “Say what you like about this prize – and most of the commentariat have done that pretty freely this year – Booker has a record of picking winners, from In a Free State (Naipaul) and Rites of Passage (Golding) to Oscar and Lucinda (Carey) and Disgrace (Coetzee).”

The Booker, he wisely informs us, “has a record of picking winners” – to which one is tempted to respond: of course it does! It’s a fucking book prize! McCrum has pulled off the ideological manoeuvre par excellence: he has stated an empirical fact (the Booker chooses winners) with enough suavity that it is transformed into a value (the Booker chooses winners). Rather like when a foreigner doesn’t understand the meaning of a native’s phrase and the native responds by simply shouting it louder, when someone asks McCrum what he means by ‘excellence’ he just shouts ‘excellence!’ with a bit more glee. The Booker chooses excellent books, therefore excellence is what the Booker chooses: such is McCrum’s logic.

The irony is that with this tautology in place, he can then go on to admonish the Booker institution for being “completely out of sync with the reality of the creative society whose activity it adjudicates”. But how can the Booker be out of sync with anything when what it decrees will always-already have been a ‘winner’? Like T. S. Eliot’s notion of the Tradition, the Booker is a mystical, proleptic community which has internalised and accommodated in advance any new Great Book which happens to appear. Torn between the celestial claims of ‘excellence’ – the ether of the literary absolute – and a mundane concern for proportional representation (most writing is by young people, therefore the Booker shouldn’t be run by OAPs), McCrum is constitutively incapable of reconciling the two. He cannot think literature and society together because he hasn’t even considered the nature of the terms he’s using: ‘work of art’, ‘high standard’, ‘winner’, ‘adjudicate’.

As a literary reviewer, McCrum’s not a bad read, but as a cultural ideologue his pronouncements are best taken with a pinch of salt.