Smart Living

The Man Booker Prize 2017: Don’t judge a book by (the awards on) its cover

This year's Man Booker Prize is awarded next week, and as always it comes down to the tastes and prejudices of five individuals

Words by
Alex Peake-Tomkinson

Anyone looking to the Booker Prize this year to affirm that dreams can come true would have seized on the example of Fiona Mozley, the 29 year bookseller who wrote the first chapter of her longlisted novel on a train. Her story seemed impossibly romantic: an unknown debut novelist, who wrote her book virtually in secret, was recognised alongside Paul Auster and Zadie Smith by one of the most famous literary prizes in the world. But while Mozley rather touchingly has said ‘I already feel like I’ve won,’ what about those writers who are always the bridesmaid but never the bride when it comes to literary prizes?

Mozley is still in the running, but she’s up against some stiff competition. Two of this year’s shortlisted writers (Ali Smith and Mohsin Hamid) have made the cut before, but neither has won. Before the shortlist was announced, the longlisted authors had previously won the Pulitzer, the Costa, the Baileys and the Folio prizes between them, quite the line-up. Even so, anyone speculating whether these gilded writers might be bothered about the Booker Prize at all should bear in mind that last year’s winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty received a sales boost of 658% after his win.

“There are six worthy writers shortlisted, but whatever happens next, its down to the taste of five individuals”

The lure of this literary crown is far more than just purely financial, however. Jon McGregor was longlisted for the third time and one imagines, was really quite bothered that he didn’t make the shortlist either. After Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list was announced in 2013 and he found himself not on it, he didn’t pretend not to mind. Instead, he tweeted on behalf of himself and others who had missed out: ‘Putting together my new band, Glaring Omission. @JoeDunthorne on bass, @HobbsPete on drums, Gwendoline Riley on vocals. I’m on maracas.’

The Granta list has long been the source of exquisite humiliation for writers, most famously Rupert Thomson, whose own girlfriend mistakenly thought he’d made the cut in 2003. Thomson described the incident: 

‘”You’re one of the Best Young British Novelists,” she said. Really? Let me see.” My heart was racing. We scanned the list of writers, but my name wasn’t there. We scanned the list again. There was no mention of me at all. “But your picture’s here,” Kate said, her finger poised over one of the black-and-white mug shots. “Look.” We both looked. It wasn’t me. It was Jeanette Winterson.’

Beryl Bainbridge was the most famous ‘Booker Prize bridesmaid’, having been shortlisted five times but never having won, and she minded very much. Her daughter, Jojo Davies said after Bainbridge’s death: ‘Beryl did want to win the Booker very much despite her protests to the contrary.’ The Man Booker Prize actually went so far as to create a special ‘Best of Beryl’ prize in her honour, but one can’t help but think that it’s not the same as winning the Man Booker proper. More recently, the novelist Amit Chaudhuri has said that ‘every anglophone novelist feels compelled to get as near the Booker prize as they can… it looms over them and follows them around in the way Guy de Maupassant said the Eiffel Tower follows you everywhere when you’re in Paris.’

All of this suggests that the judgement of the Booker Prize panel has a near-scientific basis and that literary excellence can be objectively assessed. It can’t, of course, and that’s before you come to the fact that the judges are a mixed bag every year with different tastes and prejudices.

I was at her publisher’s party when Eleanor Catton won in 2013 and aside from being stunned by the thirty seconds of screaming that accompanied the announcement, I wasn’t very surprised: the panel that year were bound to plump for her epic and multi-layered novel The Luminaries. I’d love to see Mozley take home the cheque next week, but whatever happens, it’s down to the taste of five individuals.

Julian Barnes called it ‘posh bingo’ after all, but he conceded that when you win, as he did in 2011, ‘you realise that the judges are the wisest heads in literary Christendom.’