The great game

August 25 2003 / New Statesman

There was a particularly stupid editorial in the Daily Telegraph of 16 August. Commenting on the announcement of the 2003 Booker Prize long list, the paper complained that “Too often in the past, Booker judges chose wilfully obscure books to show quite how clever they really are.” The assumption was that the Booker should be, as the Telegraph put it, “popular”, as if the purpose of the prize was to create a culture of contentment, rather than to honour the most distinguished novel in any one particular publishing year. In truth, the Booker over its 35-year history has, if anything, been prejudiced against difficulty and obscurity. Accessibility, plot, the costume dramas of history, the upheavals of the decolonised world and the traditional virtues of craft and technique have, on the whole, been privileged over the wild, the experimental and the extreme.

To look back at past Booker winners is to encounter few, if any, truly remarkable novels about contemporary Britain. There have been remarkable winners all right, such as JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and V S Naipaul’s In a Free State (1971), but both books were set largely in southern Africa. If you are seeking something to compare with the profundity, urgency and ambition of, say, Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, then the Booker cannot really help. Martin Amis and J G Ballard, who have both chronicled the contemporary with consistency and courage, have each been shortlisted only once, and then for their least characteristic novels—Amis for Time’s Arrow (1991), which tells the story of the Holocaust backwards, and Ballard for Empire of the Sun (1984), about his childhood experience of internment under the Japanese in occupied Shanghai. Jonathan Coe’s fine novel about Thatcherism and the excesses of the 1980s, What a Carve Up! (1994), was not even shortlisted, nor were V S Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987), Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000). These excellent novels about modern Britain all failed to make it on to the short list.

Yet one should not take the Booker too seriously, as the whole thing—the prize dinner, the judging process, the announcement of the long and short lists and the accompanying journalistic chatter and buzz—amounts to little more than a game, with its own arcane rules and rituals. The rules, like those of the British constitution, remain largely unwritten: change occurs, but never quickly, which means the prize still fails fully to embrace the anglophone world (the Americans remain stubbornly excluded). Like Granta magazine’s Best of Young British promotion, the Booker has ever less to do with literature than with marketing and media management. Its purpose is simply to provoke discussion and disagreement, and through doing so, to generate sales of the kinds of novels that might otherwise be neglected or ignored altogether. The prize, which was last year raised from 20,000 [pounds sterling] to 50,000 [pounds sterling], ensures that the winning novel becomes a bestseller in Britain and much of the rest of the world too.

To attempt to dignify proceedings, as the mandarin commentator Simon Jenkins did when, as chairman of the judges in 2000, he prohibited all undisclosed media leaks, is to misunderstand the nature of an event that thrives on gossip, faux conspiracy and artificial scandal. Far better, as Lisa Jardine did last year, to take your fellow judges up on to the Millennium Wheel to check the veracity of a particular scene in a novel under discussion and then allow news of your stunt to leak out. Professor Jardine was a good chairman because she understood perfectly the nature of the event with which she was associated. This is an event, after all, which in pursuit of televised drama can sometimes end up inadvertently humiliating writers: individuals more used to spending long days alone at their desks are required for one night of radiant hope to dress up like dandies and attend a banquet. There they are expected to conceal any sense of public disappointment, in the manner of the best Hollywood actors. But actors are used to pretence and artifice; they live by it. Writers, no less ambitious but often much more socially gauche than actors, too often are left feeling vulnerable and exposed.

Judging the prize can be an odd experience, too. For a start, so intense is the concentration of interest that even the judges themselves become quickly caught up in the engine of media controversy, their every public utterance monitored for clues as to what might be happening inside the Savile Club, where the judging meetings take place. When I was a judge, I approached the task with the levity and mischief I thought it deserved, as well as using it as an opportunity to ask what I thought were then important questions about the modern British novel, which seemed to me, at that time, to be in flight from the present (a wearisome number of the entries that year were historical novels which, when contrasted with the spectacular superabundance of the American fiction I liked most, seemed provincial, introspective, class-obsessed, irrelevant).

The Booker was founded in 1968. The late Sir Michael Caine, the then chairman of Booker plc, an international food distribution conglomerate with close links to the old Commonwealth, and various senior literary publishers wanted to create the British equivalent of the Prix Goncourt in France, or the Pulitzer in the United States. As the owner of several lucrative literary copyrights, including those of Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie, from which it earned more than an estimated 2m [pounds sterling] per year, Booker plc was seeking to return some of the proceeds of these profits to the world of books. Or so it was said at the time.

Michael Caine, who died in 1999, was a grand patriarch in the Victorian mould, the kind of learned, enlightened, occasionally tyrannical marketer who has all but disappeared from the modern business world. He cared passionately about literature and world affairs. Together with his old friend Jonathan Taylor, another former chairman of the now defunct Booker plc, and Martyn Goff, the charming and crafty prize administrator, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, he created in the Booker what has been described as the single most successful arts sponsorship in the world. The Booker—whose latest sponsor, following an unhappy association with Iceland (the frozen-food group, alas, not the country) is the Man Group, which specialises in “financial services”—has long since transcended its original sponsor to become a brand in its own right, with flourishing franchises. For instance, in 1992, Sir Michael established, with support from the British Council, a Russian Booker prize, which galvanised Russian publishing during the immediate post-Soviet period. Today, the Russian prize has a new sponsor—the drinks company Diageo—but the Booker name lives on. More recently, following his death, Sir Michael’s widow, the MEP Emma Nicholson, set up in his memory the Caine Prize for African Writing which offers an annual award of $15,000 for a short story by an African writer. The prize is referred to both here and in much of Africa as the “African Booker”.

Yet the Booker almost didn’t make it. In the early years, as well as grappling with widespread indifference, Booker plc found itself often under consistent attack because of its colonial heritage. John Berger (G, 1972) and J G Farrell (The Siege of Krishnapur, 1973) both used the occasion of the award dinner to denounce the sources of wealth behind the prize. Berger, who donated his winning cheque to the Black Panthers, was fortunate to be there in the first place. The judges in 1972 were distinguished: Cyril Connolly, Elizabeth Bowen and George Steiner. But, so the story goes, Connolly was drunk for the judging meetings while Bowen was distracted by illness. This meant that Steiner was largely free to award the prize to whomever he wished. He chose Berger, whose speech, according to the academic John Sutherland, has since had “a palpable influence in politically correcting the shortlist”.

The Booker survived these as well as other relatively minor scandals—walkouts, resignations, tantrums, feuds—to become the event of the publishing year. Without the Booker, the way novels are written, read and published in this country would have been different, because it created an entire prize culture, from which so much that is good has flowed, including reading groups and more progressive literary publishing. Today, there are more than 250 different book prizes in Britain, many of which are generously sponsored and enthusiastically reported. But none can quite claim the authority of the Booker prize for fiction which, celebrating its 35th anniversary, continues to create its own commanding canon of contemporary fiction, the starting point for argument and still the best guide we have to what is out there and what is worth reading.