Behind the scenes

Inside the Booker Prize: arguments, agonies and minor scandals

For more than 50 years, authors have vied to win the Booker Prize, whose 2021 winner will be announced on 3 November. Charlotte Higgins dives into the teeming, fractious history of the UK’s most prestigious fiction award

Just after 7.20pm on 20 October 1981, the 100 or so guests for the Booker Prize ceremony sat down under the oak panelling of Stationers’ Hall in the City of London. Dinner was mousse of avocado and spiced mushrooms, goujons of sole, breast of pheasant Souvaroff, black cherry pancake and hazelnut bombe. The menu’s vaguely fashionable ingredients (avocado!) announced the year’s prize as at least tentatively modern. (Back in 1975, there had been green turtle soup, a dish from another age altogether.) Among the guests were prominent figures, then and now, of London’s cultural scene: Joan Bakewell, Alan Yentob, Claire Tomalin.

It was the year the BBC began regular live TV coverage of the Booker Prize, which was as fundamental to its fame as the carefully encouraged scandals that regularly detonated around it. The year before, Anthony Burgess had demanded to know the result in advance, saying he would refuse to attend if William Golding had won – which he had. The prize’s administrator, Martyn Goff, leaked the story, and Burgess’s literary flounce made for gleeful headlines. Over Goff’s 34 years in charge, many more semi-accurate snippets from the judging room were let slip. “I was somewhat dismayed to find that purposive, often very misleading, leaking was going on,” Hilary Mantel, a judge in 1990, told me. It was by such steps that the Booker became not just a book prize, but a heady tangle of arguments, controversy and speculation: a cultural institution.

In 1981, Muriel Spark’s novel Loitering with Intent was the bookies’ favourite, at 7-4. Also in the running were D.M. Thomas, Molly Keane, Ian McEwan, Ann Schlee, Doris Lessing and Salman Rushdie. Bookies’ odds strike some as undignified when transported from the racecourse to the field of serious literature, but this particular prize was always intended, according to an early memo, to provoke “tension and anticipation”. At 7.37pm, the winner’s name was announced. The cameras swivelled towards the 34-year-old Salman Rushdie (8-1), until recently an ad man at Ogilvy and Mather, who picked up a cheque for £10,000 and instant fame.

From Rushdie’s victory onwards, life has changed dramatically for most of the authors who have won the prize. “It made it possible for me to live by my work,” Rushdie told me. When Ben Okri heard his name announced a decade later, at a banquet at Guildhall in London, “I got up, walked slowly, in a dreamlike way, past all these tables and made my way across,” he told me. “You could divide my literary life in that walk.”

The prize today is worth £50,000 and a guaranteed surge in sales. “You feel your status change overnight,” says Mantel, who won it for Wolf Hall in 2009. Bernardine Evaristo, who won jointly with Margaret Atwood in 2019, is still busy with press interviews. “Suddenly I was given a certain kind of gravitas, and respect and authority,” she told me. There was no banquet for Douglas Stuart, who won last year for his debut, Shuggie Bain. Instead, he and his partner ordered pizza at home in pandemic-struck New York, and opened a bottle of champagne. His London editor, Ravi Mirchandani, told me that when Picador acquired the book they would have been happy to sell 25,000 copies; now it has sold 800,000 in the UK alone.

An energising force

In an era in which the novel’s cultural status is wavering as other forms of entertainment loom ever larger, in which media coverage for literature is waning, in which writers’ earnings have cratered (£10,500 a year was the median in 2018, down 42% from 2005), the Booker has grown more, rather than less, important as an energising force in the publishing industry, one that presents a mass readership with books that the market alone would rarely bring to prominence. Winning the prize, the Booker’s director Gaby Wood told me, has become a kind of “coronation”.

A literary prize needs judges. For France’s Prix Goncourt – the award that a young publisher, Tom Maschler, wanted to emulate when he dreamt up the Booker in 1968 – the ten judges are literary grandees who serve until retirement at 80. They deliberate on the first Tuesday of each month while lunching at the Paris restaurant, Drouant, that has been their HQ since 1925. Each uses cutlery engraved with his, or more rarely her, name. For the Booker, a fresh set of judges is chosen every year by Gaby Wood. A former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, Wood, 50, cuts a poised, intellectual figure. Her position makes her one of the most quietly powerful people in publishing.

The prize’s founders identified the appropriate mix of judges as a chair, a reviewer, a publisher, a novelist and an outsider. In the years since then, publishers, except retired ones, have been banished, and ideas about diversity have radically transformed. The prize waited nearly 20 years for its first black or Asian judge (newsreader Trevor McDonald, in 1987); since 2015, about a third of judges have been people of colour. Until Wood put a stop to it, the advisory committee lunched in the male-only Garrick Club. “When I got the job,” she told me, “a couple of them said: ‘Oh, don’t worry, Gaby, we can book the table for you.’ And I said: ‘That’s not the point.’”

The Booker treads a narrow line between literary credibility and popular appeal. If winners are seen as too obscure, there is a risk the public blows cool and the book-trade becomes testy. If the prize veers too mainstream, that is also a problem, since the Booker is supposed to be decided on loftier criteria than mere commercial appeal. In 2011, when Wood herself was a judge, there was a row when one of her colleagues declared he favoured books that “zip along”.

Wood likes to match intriguing or unlikely pairs of judges – critical theorist Jacqueline Rose alongside crime novelist Val McDermid (2018); or classics professor Emily Wilson with thriller writer Lee Child (2020). Playing with potential judge combinations is a year-round game. But for publishers, submitting books for the prize is an annual agony. The rules seem simple enough. Each imprint gets to submit one work of “long-form fiction”, written in English. Yet there are mind-bending complications, such as the rule that judges can “call in” any other eligible book they please. No change to the criteria has been more controversial than the 2014 decision to expand eligibility to include all authors writing in English, rather than only those from the UK, Ireland, the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe. The change meant that Americans could now be entered, and would, many feared, come to dominate the prize. (This year, there is only one UK author on the shortlist.)

The rule change was furiously opposed by many in British publishing. Yet from the perspective of the prize’s organisers, the old criteria had come to seem a hangover from the early years, when, from 1969 to 2002, it was bankrolled by the Booker company, a business with roots in the British empire, originally based in Guyana. Since 2019, it has been funded by Michael Moritz, a wiry, well-read, publicity-shy, cycling-mad, Cardiff-born ex-journalist who made billions as a Silicon Valley investor.

Amid the forest of rules, there are various possible tactics available for editors hoping to increase their chances of a win. One is to formally submit a debut or work by a less famous writer, thus ensuring that it gets read, while keeping back a bigger name for the call-in list, betting that the judges will feel obliged to consider it. “It’s unbelievably high-risk, because, perversely, they very often don’t call in the famous name,” said Dan Franklin, who retired as head of Jonathan Cape in 2019. Some publishers scrutinise the CVs of the judges and submit according to their supposed tastes. The crucial thing, Franklin said, was for editors to make it a rule never, ever to tell authors whether or not they had been submitted – not if you wanted to avoid terrible rows with agents, or furious, depressed authors.

Intense reading 

No one, at any point in their life, will read novels as intensely as a Booker judge. This year, the panel read 158 books – close to one a day after the post-Christmas trickle became a steady stream. The number has escalated over the years: in 1969, the judges considered about 60 novels. Candia McWilliam, a judge in 2006, recounted in her memoir that she went blind with blepharospasm, a condition in which the sufferer cannot open their eyes, after finishing the Booker reading. Her condition had to be carefully covered up at the prize dinner. “The hilariousness of a blind judge for a literary prize already buffeted by vulgar attention might have done an indignity to the prize or its sponsors,” she wrote.

Booker judges are apt to develop intense relationships with each other, from adoration to loathing. This year’s chair, Maya Jasanoff, told me that whenever she saw her colleagues’ faces pop up on Zoom, she would think: “Here are these other people who have this very strange life – I’m among my people.” But the biographer Victoria Glendinning found herself telling a fellow judge in 1992 that he was “a condescending bastard”. In her prize-night speech, she described the judges’ relationship as close “in the circumstantial way” of people “thrown together by a railway accident”. For Philip Larkin, chair in 1977, “it was remote yet intense, like people sharing a raft after a shipwreck”.

Some past judges quietly confessed that they had adopted a system of “reading into” books, abandoning unpromising ones after 50 pages. For many, though, it is a matter of pride to complete the task. In 1971, Malcolm Muggeridge resigned from the panel, finding “most of the entries mere pornography in the worst sense of the word”. “There are moments,” said Rowan Williams, a judge this year, “when you never want to read anything but P.G. Wodehouse again.”

Deciding the winner is, more often than not, painful. The Booker has an uneven number of judges: it is designed to produce a single winner – though in 2019, it was split controversially between Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood. Particularly divisive books are unlikely to triumph. Adam Mars-Jones’s Box Hill, for example, about a submissive and possibly abusive gay relationship, opens with a leisurely description of an al fresco blowjob, and was considered by some of the 2020 judges unsuitable for recommending to friends and family. (One judge wryly described their eventual winner, Shuggie Bain, as, by contrast, “gay, but not too gay”.) Judging the Booker is by definition “heartbreaking”, said the novelist Sarah Hall, who judged it in 2017. Your favourite may not win; you will lose beloved novels along the way.

Before the shortlisting and the final meeting, the judges read the remaining books again. By the last meeting where the winner is chosen, the judges have read the shortlisted books at least three times. They are looking for a book that rewards rereading. This repetition is why “comedy and crime never win”, said 2013 judge Stuart Kelly. “Tell me any joke that’s funny on the third reading.” This year’s winner will be announced on 3 November, after the 2021 judges’ first in-person meeting. “This will sound ridiculous, but I’m often very moved by the final stages of judging,” said Wood. “All these incredible readers are sitting together, along with the fictional worlds they’ve inhabited, and as an observer I feel the room is almost thick with the breath of the books.”

One of this year’s judges, Chigozie Obioma, who has been Booker shortlisted for his first and second novels, confessed himself “a little bit demoralised” when we spoke. “The experience makes me think ‘Never, ever, in your wildest imagination, even imagine that your book will be in the running for any prize,’” said Obioma. “Right now I have three or four winners, in my mind. It’s luck,” he added. “It’s just luck.”

A longer version of this article was published in The Guardian © Guardian News and Media Ltd 2021

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