The Booker Prize’s biggest turkeys (and other stories)

Not all the winners of the prestigious literature award have stood the test of time

Culture

25 Oct 2016

The Man Booker prize is one of the loftiest of literature prizes, established in 1968 to rival the celebrated Prix Goncourt in France. While the Booker has been bestowed upon some fabulous books and writers over the year, it has also been plagued with controversy. Here we present some of the Booker’s biggest turkeys and disputes, just in time for the 2016 prize to be announced…

The bad books that have won.
The hard truth is some really terrible books have won the Booker. Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils (1986) is terribly dated now, a farce of pub bores, Welsh mines and bowel movements. Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) is a painfully laboured, nonsensical pseudo-spiritual chore. Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998) is famously his worst novel, a real stinker; it won simply because the judges felt he was owed a prize. There are others which aren’t quite such clangers but are hardly worthy of the prize. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore (1979) was, according to judge Hilary Spurling, ‘everybody’s second choice’. But it was less contentious than VS Naipaul’s A Bend In The River, so managed to clinch the prize. John Banville’s perfectly serviceable The Sea won out in 2005 against Kazuo Ishiguro’s shatteringly prescient Never Let Me Go. And in 1980 giants Anthony Burgess and William Golding went head to head with Earthly Powers and Rites of Passage respectively. But Burgess grandly announced that he would not attend the ceremony unless he was guaranteed a win; having been the favourite, the prize was shoved over to Golding.

Aggressive lobbying
To be asked to be on the judging panel for the Booker is a very great honour. Former judges include such luminaries as Stephen Spender, Angela Carter, Saul Bellow and Beryl Bainbridge. Not to mention that famous literary authority, Joanna Lumley. But it’s catch-22. The judges often know one or two of the nominated authors personally. Elizabeth Jane Howard lobbied vigorously for her then-husband Kingsley Amis in 1974; to no one’s surprise, he made the shortlist. Julian Barnes has even called the prize ‘posh bingo’ as judges famously only read books from the 150-ish long list by authors they already know and like. AL Kennedy took it one step further in 1996 when she described the process as being determined by ‘who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.’

In-fighting and insults
The panel is famous for its competitive, bitchy atmosphere. Old friends have come to blows over it. In 2000, George Walden dubbed Peregrine Worsthorne ‘an aging poseur’; Worsthorne retaliated by calling Walden ‘a monumental prat.’ The meetings of the judges are infamous for soured tempers and raised hackles. So notorious is it that the alternative ‘Not The Booker’ prize explicitly states that there should be ‘no arguing’ in its list of conditions. And if it’s not cattiness that’s the problem, it’s primness. Irvine Welsh’s seminal Trainspotting (1993) lost out because it contained too much swearing.

No guarantee of longevity
To be picked for the longlist is a mark of the highest esteem; to be shortlisted is beyond most people’s wildest dreams. And to win surely assures your place in the literary firmament forever after. That ‘Booker Prize Winner’ sticker in Waterstones will have droves purchasing your tomes for the rest of your life. Right? Well, not quite. While some winners have stood the test of time – Salman Rushdie, AS Byatt and Kazuo Ishiguro come to mind – others have faded into obscurity. Who, now, remembers PH Newby and Bernice Rubens, winners in the first two years? Yet Iris Murdoch, William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen and Muriel Spark all missed out in 1968 and 1969 (Murdoch eventually won in 1978; the others not at all).


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