The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Letter from Oxford


Claire Squires



            Rituals and myth have always played a part in rites of passage, and the university graduation ceremony is no exception. At the University of Oxford, the ceremony is one of great pomp and circumstance, conducted in Latin in the Sheldonian Theatre. The graduating students, outfitted in gowns, hoods and mortar boards, feature against the honeyed backdrop of Cotswold-stone colleges on hundreds of postcards and thousands of tourists’ snapshots. At Oxford Brookes University—the city’s second higher education institution—the ceremony is a rather less formal affair, though traditional graduation robes are still in evidence. English is our lingua franca, and solemnity gives way to a more celebratory atmosphere as fellow students, parents, partners and friends intersperse the proceedings with cheers and wolf-whistles of congratulation, before we adjourn to the lawn of Headington Hill Hall for scones, tea and champagne.


            Oxford Brookes awards honorary degrees—recently to the naturalist Sir David Attenborough, to the inventor Trevor Baylis, and to the writer Philip Pullman—for outstanding contributions to life beyond the academy, but in fields in which all university graduates might themselves aspire to achieve. During this year’s ceremony for the BA and MA graduates of Brookes’ Publishing Department, the recipient of an honorary DLitt was a man whose formal education ended at the age of 15, Martyn Goff, OBE. Goff has been a passionate and influential advocate behind the scenes of the book world in post-war Britain. After running a number of bookshops in the south of England, while at the same time writing novels and reviews, he became in the early 1970s the Director of the National Book League. The Book League—later renamed Booktrust—was, and still is, the primary literary development agency in the UK. Its activities to promote books and reading are both inventive and committed, and Goff’s innovations laid sturdy foundations for the subsequent reader-centred approaches of British literary development work at local, regional and national levels.


            While at the Book League, Goff’s most notable act was to take Tom Maschler’s brainchild the Booker Prize for Fiction (now the Man Booker Prize for Fiction) and turn it into an internationally recognised award, an event extensively covered in the media at home and abroad, substantially enhancing the reputation and sales of its winning author. The prize has also spurred a renaissance in the popularity of literary fiction in the UK market, and has spawned competitors in the shape of the Whitbread Book Awards and the Orange Prize for Fiction. The liveliness of British literary prize culture has frequently provoked admiration and envy from beyond these shores, reversing the usual pattern of influence—the recent debate, for example, surrounding the possible expansion of the Man Booker Prize to include American writers, or the prestigious Prix Goncourt, now in its 100th year and Maschler’s original inspiration, being called “the French Booker” by a French newspaper.


            Goff has presided over the Booker Prize as its Administrator for several decades, and is still overseeing it in his 80th year. As the Booker demonstrates, the role of literary prizes in the wider literary environment is manifold. Prizes influence sales and reputations, they are very effective promoters of literature, and they can play an important part in developing literary culture generally. In the long-term, prizes also have a role in constructing notions of literary community and value, and hence in constructing literary canons. Thus, prizes have a longevity that extends beyond the few months immediately following the award ceremony. Substantial research has yet to be undertaken in this area, but there is surely a correlation between a novel winning a high-profile prize and its subsequent appearance on school and university syllabi. Notions of what is thought to be “good” literature have come, at least in part, to rely on the evaluation made by the judging panels of various prizes. Indeed, the decisions they make, when viewed over the course of several years, often privilege certain perceived types or communities of writing. Booker’s seeming predilection for postmodern, postcolonial novels—epitomised by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981—has arguably inflected “English” literature away from the parochial drawing-rooms of England and towards what Luke Strongman has called “the after-text of Empire.” Whether in fact this movement is an exotic commodification that only serves to reinforce the representational and commercial hold of the metropolitan centre on its ex-colonies, as Graham Huggan has argued, is open to debate.


Such debate is central to analysis of the mechanisms and impact of literary prizes, and we need to ask questions in order to understand and assess their cultural impact. Who gets to be a judge, what are their qualifications for the job, and what criteria do they use to make their decisions? Do judging panels make these decisions by consensus and compromise, or by the force of strongly-held beliefs and even stronger personalities? Who—or what—do these judges represent? Who, in fact, selects the judges? Behind the yearly Booker judging panel, for example, there is a more permanent and more shadowy Advisory Committee, which appoints the judges and chairperson every year. Behind this steering group are the Trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation, a charitable organisation set up in 2002, who are now ultimately responsible for the management, administration and long-term direction of the prize. (Any decision about the inclusion of American writers would be made by the Trustees.) It is also worth asking, then, what the potential and actual conflicts between the various stakeholders involved in each prize are: the sponsor, the management group, the judges, the media, publishers, literary agents, booksellers, teachers, academics, authors and readers? Where does the power lie in prizes’ construction of literary value, community and canons? Moreover, does a lively prize culture necessarily equal a lively culture? Or are we sometimes so seduced by the glamour of the award ceremony and the excitement of the prize-giving that we start to think that dressing up in dinner jackets and cocktail dresses is what books are actually for? Just as studying for a degree—or being awarded an honorary degree—is not really about standing on a platform in a graduation robe, so writing is a much longer, a much more difficult, and a much more meaningful process than the acceptance of the winner’s laurels.


            In terms of the production and reception of literature, these are questions of paramount importance to which researchers are increasingly turning their attention. “Culture and the Literary Prize,” a recent international conference at Oxford Brookes, brought together students, academics and independent scholars working in this burgeoning field. Due to the university’s close links to the publishing community, and the generous intercession of Martyn Goff, negotiations are approaching completion for the deposit of the Booker Prize Archive at Oxford Brookes. When it is opened, we hope that much vital evidence will become available to researchers in their attempts to respond to questions surrounding book awards. As a consequence, our understanding of the processes of both literary prize culture and literary culture—and their rituals and myths—will be enriched.


For further information about the Booker Prize Archive, please see the library website






Squires, Claire. “Letter from Oxford.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003) <>