From French origins to staged walkouts – behind the curtain of the Booker Prize.

With this much controversy... what's all the fuss about?


Credit: TSGIt’s getting a bit real now. We’ve reached that time in the cultural calendar where, as the days begin to shorten and the weather turns grey, literature students and book lovers alike can seek a new diversion; as the shortlist for the 54th annual Booker Prize is here! Emerging no doubt bleary-eyed from the depths of an eight-month reading retreat (or nightmare), are this year’s judging panel of industry experts: writer and historian, Helen Castor; twice shortlisted author for the International Booker Prize, Alain Mabanckou; academic and presenter of BBC Two’s Inside Culture, Shahidha Bari; cultural historian Neil MacGregor; and the winner of the 2020 Goldsmiths’ Literature Prize, M. John Harrison. Among the six finalists, whittled down from a sweat-inducing tally of 169 publisher submissions, is record-breaking 87-year-old Alan Garner with his folklore tale, ‘Treacle Walker’. Although Alan Garner’s novel contains fewer words, it is Irish author Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’, at 116 pages, which becomes the shortest shortlisted entry in prize history! Besides welcoming contenders of five different nationalities, spanning four continents, the majority of this year’s have hailed from independent publishing companies; helping to sow the seeds of inspiration to a new generation of creative writing talent. In light of this, whether you’re an avid bookworm, a serial tsundoku, or someone with a passing awareness of the prestigious event, read on for an intriguing history of the Booker Prize.

Thomas Maschler pictured in 1966. Source: Jewish Chronicle.

The Booker Prize was founded in 1968 by the late publishing giant, Thomas Maschler. As a well-travelled and almost selfishly-driven emigrant, whose parents fled the Nazi invasion of Austria, Maschler likely encountered his inspiration, the Prix Goncourt, during a short period in Brittany where he learned to speak French. Shortly after, he took up a scholarship at a Quaker school in Reading. A cultural institution established by the Académie of the same name, the Prix Goncourt sought to recognise the ‘most imaginative’ work of the year, with the winner becoming ‘an instant millionaire’. As a testament to this, Marguerite ‘Duras’ L’mant’ (‘The Lover’) became an international bestseller, sold over a million copies, and was translated into 43 different languages. Maschler decided to create his own Commonwealth competition that would not only rival its Parisian counterpart but would challenge, in his view, Britain’s ‘backward[ness] in terms of its literary appreciation’.

But, perhaps betraying a certain level of dissociation from his family’s own experience of oppression, the ‘tainted genius’ approached the aptly-named Booker McConnell ltd, to become the competition’s sponsor. McConnell’s ‘Author’s Division’ had invested heavily in the literary copyrights of Ian Flemming and Agatha Christie and so was willing to put something back into the industry. Following Booker’s merger with the Campbell family firm, John Campbell (also chairman of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation) sought to radically transform the company with his introduction of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement in 1952. The new law guaranteed fixed imports of sugar by Britain at prices that offered ‘reasonable remuneration to efficient producers’. However, the firm’s enduring legacy of exploiting its Guyanese plantation workers into the 20th Century – long after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 – prompted 1972’s winning author, John Berger, to donate half of his winnings to the British Black Panther movement. Berger’s characteristic criticism, here, directed against the judging panel, prompted some attendees to walk out in disgust.

Booker’s first televised award ceremony in 1976. Credit: The Booker Prizes.

By the latter half of the decade, Booker’s hitherto exclusive and private affair was now elevated to greater heights, with the advent of its inaugural television broadcast in 1976. Where previously, the announcement of the winner had taken place at an intimate and frightfully posh cocktail party, it was now beamed into millions of viewers’ homes up and down the country. The ceremony was hosted by Melvyn Bragg from a candlelit ballroom in Claridges, topped off by an impromptu visit from the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Of course, a good portion of the former was engineered by the prize administrator and its publicist, Martyn Goff and Marilyn Edwards who, respectively, transformed the publicity of the prize with a series of ‘carefully placed leaks’, their decision to judge books in the current year of publication – rather than retrospectively (which created a ‘missing’ year for certain works, belatedly commemorated as ‘The Lost Man Booker Prize’ in 2010), and purposely withholding the declaration of the winner until the night of the event – all helping to build its anticipation. Despite these commendable efforts which positioned the Booker Prize as a positive and invigorating force in an antiquated industry, winners’ sales remained modest.

Although Goff was regarded as a ‘maestro of [the Booker’s] éminence grise’, it wasn’t until the 1980s that his unyielding enthusiasm was rewarded with an uptake in sales, following a string of ‘fruitful’ controversies… One such dispute involved a failed attempt by one judge to influence the rest of the panel in their partner’s favour, as well as the disappointing stalemate of ‘74, in which Stanley Middleton and Nadine Gordimer were declared joint-winners. Goff would later reveal that 1976’s winner, David Storey, was rather absurdly decided on a coin toss, and then, in 2018, the British Library published documents revealing judge Joanna Lumley’s disdain for Keri Hulme’s ‘indefensible’ psychological Maori fiction, ‘The Bone People’. Hulme went on to win in 1985, cementing her reputation as one of the most controversial winners in Booker Prize history. Bernardine Evaristo, the first black British and mixed-race woman to win the Booker, cites the novel as ‘an early inspiration’.

Keri Hulme (centre) pictured with her publishers and a Maori student (right)
Credit: NY Times.

By the early 2000s, the Booker seemed to be gaining its conscience. Gone were the days when publishing was the sole preserve of a very white, very middle-class demographic; although the Booker has stated ‘this descriptor… [remains] not too far off’. The administration of the prize was transferred to the Booker Prize Foundation, which today operates a book distribution service to disadvantaged communities, and the title sponsor became Man Group Investment. Under this new guardianship, the prize money more than doubled from £21,000-£50,000 – ten times its original value – to become one of the richest literary awards in the world. In consistency with new management, the competition was renamed ‘The Man Booker Prize’, until 2019, when succeeding sponsors Moritz and Heyman opted to keep their benevolent fund, Crankstart, out of the spotlight.

Anna Burns poses with ‘Milkman’ in 2018. Credit: The Independent.

And yet, for a prize that seeks to award the ‘best’ novel written in the English language and published in the UK and Ireland, there has been frequent debate as to what constitutes such a highly subjective definition. Unsurprisingly, the judging process and the public reception haven’t always been amicable. In 1993, Scots author Irvine Welsh with his debut novel, ‘Trainspotting’, was pulled from the shortlist after it was deemed ‘offensive’ by two judges who had threatened to walk out. In an interesting plot twist, the now-regarded masterpiece has led some readers to call into question the representation of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish entrants, compared with their English and Commonwealth counterparts.

Indeed, these arguments were grounded in a 2012 report in the Guardian which showed that less than 3% of longlisted entries had hitherto been penned by Scottish authors (two of which have gone on to win). Whilst, Bernice Rubens remains the only Welsh winner since 1970, with ‘The Elected Member’. It wasn’t until 2018 that Northern Ireland first won the title with Anna Burns’ historical fiction, ‘Milkman’. Issues have also arisen with the pretensions of the judging process itself, as former poet laureate Andrew Motion has accused some panels of prioritising their focus on the book’s ‘readability’; opening up a ‘false divide’ between ‘high end’ literature and more ‘readable’ publications. As a result, the Folio Society’s new international competition, the Literature Prize, promised an ‘uncompromising standard of excellence’ which would rival that of the Booker. Amidst mounting pressure, in 2014, the Booker expanded its eligibility criteria to welcome submissions from all English-written and UK- and Ireland-published novels, internationally.

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo were declared joint winners in 2019.
Credit: BBC News.

So, with this much controversy, one might ask, what’s all the fuss about? Perhaps this is best explained by the Booker’s founder, Maschler himself, whose vision, whether by discussion or disagreement, was to trigger an active conversation about ‘serious’ literature. This single idea has since flourished with the discovery and celebration of an array of young and established voices; whether that be Leila Motley, Kazuo Ishiguro, Eleanor Catton, or Geetanjali Shree. More so, in an increasingly hostile app-based climate, where it’s becoming ever more dangerous to express oneself openly – recent attacks on Salman Rushdie and Tsitsi Dangarembga spring to mind – the Booker appears to have entrenched its moral purpose as a beacon of free literary expression and the right for readers to access this. The Booker, then, cannot be dismissed as an ostentatious affair indelibly stained by its colonial past, but crucially, an evolving and self-refining vanguard that upholds the value of the written word. As David Storey once put it, “[most] prizes tend to be rewarded to the reliable rather than the liabilities, and the liabilities are the people who matter in the end”.

The winner will be announced on the 17th of October 2022.

With thanks to: 

BBC News
France24
The Booker Prizes
The British Library
The Conversation
The Guardian
The Independent
The Times (thumbnail credit)
Verso


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