The Man Booker Prize did not exist in 1968, when envious glances were thrown across the English Channel at France’s Prix Goncourt. A mere 18 years later, French newspaper Le Figaro was calling the Goncourt the “French Booker”: a remarkable turnaround.
Reversals — and amplifications — of fortune are a Booker characteristic. Take the case of 1982 winner Thomas Keneally, whose Schindler’s Ark was the subject of intense debate about eligibility, with dissenters claiming it was non-fiction rather than fiction. Regardless of the controversy, or possibly stoked by it, the book’s sales ran into the millions.
Booker winners who are purveyors of literary fiction have seen their previously modest sales soar to unthinkable heights. Anne Enright, winner last year, has sold more than 200 000 copies of The Gathering in Britain alone. Such an outcome is a prospect for this year’s winner, who will be announced on October 14 when the Man Booker Prize effectively turns 40.
To mark that, it is apt perhaps that the 2008 edition comes with its own brand of disputation. When the chair of the Man Booker judges, former Tory MP Michael Portillo, announced the shortlist of six (see box below), he declared: “We have brought you fun.”
The panel described the novels as “page-turning” and “readable”, which brought to mind the converse position, adopted by 2005 winner John Banville, whose acceptance speech included forthright swipes at previous winners that could be construed as non-literary works. Banville said it was a relief that “a work of art” had won the Booker — an unveiled reference to The Life of Pi, which took the award in 2002.
Being “page-turners” is a “by-product of this year’s list,” says Ion Trewin, literary director of the Man Booker Prize. He says the novels are “incidentally very readable” but that, of course, they were not judged “for their readability quotient”.
After all, “most writers write to be read”, says Trewin. The list “has high quality, but the books are not ‘tough reads’,” he notes, adding piquantly that “fiction is not judged by the difficulty of the read”.
Trewin comes to the post after a lifetime in the literary world. He was literary editor of The Times in the 1970s, then an editor and a publisher. In the former capacity, he edited Schindler’s Ark. He retired as a publisher three years ago, which made it possible for him to take up the Booker position vacated by the long-serving and legendary Martyn Goff.
Goff’s “second role” was described by Sir Michael Caine, chief executive and later chair of Booker plc, as arousing “the interest of journalists and diary columnists in some aspect of the year’s happenings — never saying sufficient to give an official view, but always sufficient to start the journalists hunting the hare.”
Throughout our conversation, on a clear line from Jo’burg to the UK, Trewin drops tantalising hints and morsels. Gently he introduces his chairing of the 1974 panel when the novelists AS Byatt and Elizabeth Jane Howard sat on the panel and a joint award was made to Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton for Holiday.
He feels that The Life of Pi is “interesting as a story but flawed in its conception”. Banville and “your own JM Coetzee” are not easy to read.
Trewin appoints the Man Booker judges, sits in on the judging and oversees the content of the prizes. He has read most of the longlist and all of the shortlist.
“The Booker was set up to increase the reading of quality, serious fiction,” he emphasises. For readers and book-buyers, the choice of the Booker indicates that “here is really something worth reading”.
That applies not only to the winner, but also to the shortlist as a whole. And the shortlist, Trewin points out, is a British invention. “The novels score in promotion and publicity from the imprimatur of the shortlist.”
There is another knock-on effect: paperback editions of longlisted titles invariably carry a shout along the lines of “Longlisted for the Booker Prize”. In setting up the judges’ panel Trewin looks “first and foremost for a passion for the reading of fiction. We don’t pay an awful lot of money and people have to read, say, 110 books in five months.”
He looks for those who appreciate “the art of reading and enjoying fiction”, asking potential judges: “What do you read? What do you seek?” That is “to ascertain if they devote themselves with necessary passion”.
Another element is the choice of chair. “There is a special talent for how you run a jury,” he says, adding that “politicians tend to be rather good at chairing meetings and getting the best out of people.”
Hence the choice of Portillo?
“Objections to Portillo come from people who don’t like his politics, but that’s missing the point. Since retiring from politics he has been able to demonstrate his passion for the arts in the broadest possible way.”
When Trewin visited Portillo at home, as part of the process of choosing a chair, he was delighted to see piles of modern fiction that Portillo read “for pleasure”.
Here was somebody to chair the 2008 process: “Interested in the subject of fiction, possessing the ability to chair and capable of presenting a good public face.”
As for the judging: “Every book is discussed on its merits. At the shortlist stage we realised we had ‘good stories’ that had emerged from the longlist.”
Trewin values the Man Booker process as “being able to spot people”. He points to Sebastian Barry, shortlisted in 2005 for A Long, Long Way. The bookies’ favourite for 2008, at 2-1, is Barry’s The Secret Scripture.
He says with equal satisfaction that “the shortlist allows people to emerge and be spotted by readers” but there is the careful caveat: “Though that’s not the role set out for the prize.” Instead, that is unequivocally “to select the best novel of the year in the UK and the Commonwealth”.
And of the Man Booker’s future, Trewin says: “Every year is a new year. We can’t rest on a great reputation. We can’t think it will go on indefinitely being the best UK prize.”