Tonight the five judges of the Man Booker prize will announce this yearÃ¢Â€Â™s winner. It was also the votes of five judges that chose the winners at the City Dionysia in Athens, where Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes fought for attention and glory (and where the results were met with regular outrage).
For wordworkers nothing much has changed over the last 3,000 years. YouÃ¢Â€Â™re unlikely to be rich. There are many stories about Homer, that he was a prisoner, that he was a beggar. There arenÃ¢Â€Â™t any about him luxuriating in his seaside villa. According to tradition, Euripides wrote in a dank cave (whether for financial or misanthropic reasons is not clear).
Publishers are often reproached for their hard sell and ludicrous blurbs, but the writers were at it a millennium before the printing press. Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass, starts off by assuring his readers he will Ã¢Â€Âœgently stroke their kindly earsÃ¢Â€Â.
Chariton, the author of probably the earliest extant novel, Callirhoe, flashes his goods straight away: Ã¢Â€ÂœI am going to tell you a love story.Ã¢Â€Â Long before the queues at Hay-on-Wye, writers hunted down listeners to expose them to extracts from their work. Let me state I donÃ¢Â€Â™t believe writers are owed any support or attention (although IÃ¢Â€Â™m delighted to receive any I can get). Yet the history of literature is mostly a history of patrons. Even the big earners such as MoliÃƒÂ¨re and Shakespeare (and there is a suggestion that Shakespeare made most of his money from the oyster concession at the Globe) benefited from a nod from the nobs.
When the Booker started in 1969, there was no grand manifesto. The original intent was to give the prize to the Ã¢Â€ÂœbestÃ¢Â€Â novel in the English language. Ã¢Â€ÂœBestÃ¢Â€Â is an epithet that is at once graspable, if widely open to debate. There was a clear sense of pleasure in the selection. The early shortlists were a mix of titles, but richer in novels that might be described as more accessible, more commercial, more fun than many that figure in the last 10 years. Derek RobinsonÃ¢Â€Â™s Goshawk Squadron, JG FarrellÃ¢Â€Â™s The Siege of Krishnapur, Beryl BainbridgeÃ¢Â€Â™s The Dressmaker, for instance. Booker back then had an Ã¢Â€Âœauthor divisionÃ¢Â€Â that held the rights to Ian Fleming and Dennis Wheatley.
Compare the first winner of the Booker in 1969, PH NewbyÃ¢Â€Â™s slim Something to Answer For, with its diametric opposite in 2015, Marlon JamesÃ¢Â€Â™s chunky, multi-narrator A Brief History of Seven Killings, written mostly in Jamaican patois and requiring a sound acquaintance with the politics and music of Jamaica in the 1970s.
The Booker hasnÃ¢Â€Â™t done a bad job. Like all prizes, a backward glance will raise some eyebrows. Hands up anyone whoÃ¢Â€Â™s read a book by Newby or Bernice Rubens lately? I canÃ¢Â€Â™t remember anyone recommending John BergerÃ¢Â€Â™s G to me in the last 30 years as a must-read thrill. But most of the right names are there, if not always for their best work. However, itÃ¢Â€Â™s the same hit-and-miss for the Nobel prize. Sully Prudhomme or Selma LagerlÃƒÂ¶f, anyone?
There was a shift in the Booker shortlists of the 80s, a distinct swing to the Ã¢Â€ÂœliteraryÃ¢Â€Â novel. The Booker was the only prize that guaranteed a difference in status, whether you were shortlisted or won. Without the Booker thrusting the novels of AS Byatt, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro into the hands of middle England and readers abroad, their careers and bank balances would have been very different.
When the Man Booker prize announced its Ã¢Â€Âœglobal expansionÃ¢Â€Â in 2013, opening the door to anyone writing in English and published in the UK (essentially unleashing the Americans, since the rest of the English-speaking world was already represented) it did use the term Ã¢Â€Âœliterary fictionÃ¢Â€Â several times, so there canÃ¢Â€Â™t be any ambiguity about the current goal.
I remember Ion Trewin, its literary director until his death in 2015, claiming there had been extensive consultation about the decision, even with novelists. I also remember thinking that I didnÃ¢Â€Â™t believe there was a single British novelist whoÃ¢Â€Â™d back the decision to let in the Americans. I certainly havenÃ¢Â€Â™t met one.
The move is a good one for the profile of the Man Booker prize itself, although it was probably a kneejerk reaction to the transatlantic appearance of the Folio prize. Competition is stimulating. I quite like the idea of a merciless arena, a gladiatorial free-for-all where all-comers can come and have a no-quarters contest, one big massive cage fight.
But thereÃ¢Â€Â™s a problem with literary fiction. Ask any agent. Or publisher. Or writer of literary fiction. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s a tough sell. The basis of commercial fiction is that it does the same or similar thing again and again, and doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t ask much of the reader. An arrangement the reader is perfectly entitled to. Unfortunately literary fiction is largely the opposite. I canÃ¢Â€Â™t think of a writer, whether a genre writer or a literary one, who writes primarily for money. All the writers I know write because they want to. But a novel takes time to write, and there are bills.
The winner of the Man Booker last year was Paul Beatty, a witty and entertaining American. Half of this yearÃ¢Â€Â™s shortlist are American, two of whom, George Saunders and Paul Auster, are landmarks in American fiction. In addition to selling well in one of the largest fiction markets in the world, both Saunders and Auster could mosey into any university in the US, chat for an hour and get thousands of dollars (and there are a lot of universities in the US).
I like competition. But shouldnÃ¢Â€Â™t there be a level playing field? British writers arenÃ¢Â€Â™t eligible for the big American awards. The stipulation that American writers have to be published in the UK doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t help much as, by definition, the strongest and most successful American authors are the ones that cross over.
ItÃ¢Â€Â™s heartening to see a homegrown first-timer such as Fiona Mozley on the shortlist. Yet the presence of the Americans is simply making it harder for British talent to flourish or even survive (not to mention the writers from the Commonwealth). If the Man Booker cares about British literary fiction, maybe it should have a rethink. Otherwise the next Kazuo Ishiguro might not make it through.
Ã¢Â€Â¢ Tibor Fischer is a novelist