/ 30 July 2008

Best of the Booker

Salman Rushdie’s epoch-making novel Midnight’s Children is the best-ever winner of the Man Booker (literary) prize, according to a public vote.

Rushdie ran away with the award, created to celebrate the prize’s 40th birthday, with 36% of readers, out of nearly 8 000, selecting his Midnight’s Children from a shortlist of six. The work — the fantastical tale of Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight precisely at the moment India gained independence — won the Booker in 1981. It also won the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993 — another special award, that time commemorating the 25th anniversary of the creation of the prize.

If Rushdie’s victory was predictable, it was also deserved, according to John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, and one of the judges who drew up the shortlist for the Best of the Bookers.

Midnight’s Children arguably “defined” the Booker in the 1980s, he said.

Midnight’s Children ‘made’ the Booker prize, and made it the index of literary fiction,” said Mullan. “No one really knew who Rushdie was — it was his second novel — and no one expected it to win. And though people knew what magic realism was, no one had read an English novel like this before. When it won, suddenly it looked as though this prize could identify vivid new developments in English fiction.”

The other books on the Best of the Booker shortlist were Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995); Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988); JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999); Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974); and JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973). Disgrace came in second in the voting, followed by Oscar and Lucinda, The Ghost Road, The Siege of Krishnapur and finally The Conservationist, always the dark horse on the list.

According to Mullan, the value of the Best of the Bookers is wider than its simple identification of a single winner: “It looks at what qualities of books survive the fashion that gives them their temporary celebrity.”

Rushdie has recalled how Midnight’s Children was conceived as he was working in an advertising agency, dreaming up slogans such as “naughty but nice” for cream cakes. Having submitted the manuscript to Liz Calder at publishers Jonathan Cape, it was sent out for a reader’s report. “The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form,” it rather dampeningly read.

Fortunately the second reader, Susannah Clapp, now theatre critic of the London Observer, was more positive.

Although not registering on the scale of controversy sparked by Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the book did cause him to be threatened with an action for defamation by Indira Gandhi. The case was settled before it came to court.

The other panel members who drew up the shortlist were Victoria Glendinning and Mariella Frostrup. —