Prize fights

Misery, violence and debauchery: Rebecca Long examines the tumultuous history of the Booker Prize judging panel

Misery, violence and debauchery: Rebecca Long examines the tumultuous history of the Booker Prize judging panel

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded every year for the finest original full-length novel written in the English language, by a citizen of either the Commonwealth or Ireland. Fair enough. But the Booker is more than just your standard literary prize awarded to an author you’ve never heard of, for a book that you’ll probably never read, by a jury made up of academics who pride themselves on being more intellectual than everyone else.

The prize was established in 1968 with the aim of encouraging the wider reading of the best fiction in Ireland and the Commonwealth – apparently America and most of Europe aren’t worthy enough to be included. With the aid of charismatic judges, controversial voting styles, ungrateful winners, very bad losers and, of course, some excellent books, it has managed to do just that. A stint as a Booker Prize judge is always memorable they say, just not necessarily for the right reasons.

According to Frank Kermode, one of the judges in 1969, Something to Answer For by PH Newby only won because Dame Rebecca West disliked it less than all the others. You don’t want to know what she said about Iris Murdoch.

In 1971, the year In a Free State by VS Naipaul won the prize, Antonia Frasier was chatted up by Saul Bellow in a taxi home. The great man apparently leaned forward and asked her had anyone ever told her she was a very handsome woman. He promptly fell asleep for the rest of the journey.

In 1976, David Storey’s Saville won despite the fact that, according to Frances King, one of her fellows judges had read so few novels in the course of her life that she was puzzled when one of the submissions was referred to as “Kafkaesque.”

Beryl Bainbridge, herself a five-time nominee, recalls how one of her fellow judges, Brendan Gill, declared that he was going to throw himself off the balcony of their committee room as he was so fed up with the whole process. Another judge, the poet Philip Larkin, apparently stayed completely silent, with no one daring to say a word to him. One wonders, then, how they managed to pick Staying On by Paul Scott as the winner. Bainbridge maintains, rather endearingly, that, despite never having won the prize, she doesn’t really mind, she’s just very happy to have been noticed. Five times.

Paul Bailey seems to be especially bitter about his 1982 Booker experience, the year Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark won. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he declared, “There are many things I regret doing and being a judge for the Booker prize is one of them.” One would almost think it was an unpleasant memory for him.

In 1983, it was The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee that took the prize and it proved quite a lively year as the Booker Prize goes. While taking time to make up her mind as to which book should receive her casting vote, chairperson Fay Weldon – at the time an ardent feminist – joked that she did not have her husband present to help her with the decision. Little did she realise, the rest of the jury took her light-hearted joke seriously and the seeds of dissent were sown. That night, on the conclusion of her chairperson’s speech – which she used to mortally insult all of the publishers present – the president of the Publishers’ Association got to his feet and hit her agent full in the face. All hell then broke loose, all because of a feminist joke that went awry. Moral of the story? Don’t make jokes in front of a Booker Prize jury. Things seem to have grown progressively duller since the. No one hits anybody nowadays.

In 1992, the prize was awarded jointly to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. That year, one of the judges dreamed that he was Spartacus and that the Roman legions were advancing on him in the form of piles of books that he hadn’t read. Victoria Glendinning, on her first Booker jury described the experience as a scary but non-fatal railway accident. Fellow judge Val Cunningham apparently declared, “I am very interested in Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits and their role in literature.” Sounds more like the Turner Prize than the Booker to me.

So, basically, the Booker Prize boils down to nobody ever changing their mind. Deciding on the long list is worse than the short list and deciding on the short list is pretty horrendous. A number of judges have commented on the horse-trading aspect of the selection process, with one judge recounting how a colleague rang him up to say, “You pick my book and I’ll pick yours.”

On its fortieth anniversary, it’s inevitable that the arbitrariness of the voting system and the merit of literary prizes in today’s society will be questioned. But John Sutherland, who was a member of the 2005 jury, makes the point that the judges and the process itself will ultimately be forgotten. Hopefully, the books they’ve voted for will be remembered.