Prize-Winning Authors Aren’t Sleeping With the Enemy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The furor sparked by Man Group Plc’s decision to end its sponsorship of the U.K.’s leading literary prize highlights an uncomfortable truth – a decade after the global financial crisis, the industry remains in the naughty corner, un-trusted and unloved. Supporters of capitalism should take note.

On the face of it, society should applaud a system that takes some of the fees levied by a hedge fund on its wealthy clients and redistributes them among some of the most creative and underpaid members of the artistic community. But the literary world has always been a bit sniffy about the Man Booker Prize being backed by the world’s biggest publicly traded hedge fund.

Bestselling author Sebastian Faulks last year reportedly described Man Group as “the enemy,” saying the firm’s bosses were “not the sort of people who should be sponsoring literary prizes.” I disagree; given that all corporate sponsorship involves taking filthy lucre from some company or other, at least a hedge fund is transparent about the fact it makes its money purely from money.

Faulks can afford – literally – to be disdainful about the prize’s sponsorship. In 2009, the Telegraph newspaper listed him as earning 27.5 million pounds ($36 million) from his scribblings as the 40th best-selling author between 2000 and 2009.

Contrast his wealth with the meager income of his less successful peers. A survey published last year by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society found that earnings among writers had dropped by 15 percent in real terms in five years, with the average income dropping to less than 10,500 pounds a year.

It’s hard to see what paying for the literary laurel has delivered for Man, apart from the opportunity to invite clients to the awards ceremony. It stuck with the original Booker moniker when it took over in 2002; I’ll bet most of the literary community has no idea how Man makes its money, and still refers to it as the Booker Prize.

But the 25 million pounds the hedge-fund firm has spent since 2002 on prizes and other charitable activities during its sponsorship is pocket change for a company that made an adjusted pretax profit of $153 million in the first half of last year alone. So at least it’s been a relatively cheap adventure.

The committee that awards the prize now has to scrabble to find a new patron. Suppose it went back to the award’s 1969 roots, when it was sponsored by food distribution company Booker McConnell Ltd.; that firm became Booker Group Plc, and was bought last year by Tesco Plc. Drafting in the supermarket chain would surely risk antagonizing the growing community of activists who view our food consumption habits as contributing to the destruction of the environment.

And even that original sponsor didn’t escape unscathed. After winning the award in 1972, novelist John Berger slammed the company for exploiting workers at its sugar plantations in Guyana and pledged to donate half of his 5,000-pound prize to the Black Panthers and half for a migrant worker project.

“Capitalism is not immoral, it’s amoral,” as Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, said at Davos last week. While commerce and creativity will always make for uneasy bedfellows, the reality is that there’s no magic money tree to shower the arts with money untainted by capitalism. Let’s see how long the next patron of the literary prize lasts before being denounced for some moral shortcoming or other by the artists it only seeks to support.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering asset management. He previously was the London bureau chief for Bloomberg News. He is also the author of "Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable."

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