An alternative Golden Booker Prize
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Apart from a big party to celebrate the event in July, the Booker Prize organisers are also staging a ‘Best of the Booker’ award. They’re calling it the Golden Booker Prize, an award which will “crown the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize, as chosen by five judges and then voted for by the public.”
Now there are a few odd things about this celebration.
One is that the first Booker Prize was awarded 49 years ago this year, not 50. So where did they get the idea this was a golden anniversary year – it’s not clear from their website but I am assuming they are taking their starting point an announcement of the inauguration of the prize or maybe the judging process itself.
Stranger still is the process they are using to determine which book/author gets the ultimate prize.
Five judges have been put in place. Each has a remit to review the prize winners from one decade and decide which of them has “best stood the test of time”. The shortlist announced on May 26 is really therefore just one person’s point of view. What a missed opportunity. A more robust process would have been for all judges to have reviewed all the winners and debated/discussed their merits before choosing a shortlist?
But what’s done is done and we have five shortlisted titles.
1970s: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul
1980s: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
1990s: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
2010s: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Have they made the right choices? Having read all bar 4 of the Booker prize winners since it was first awarded in 1969 and all of these shortlisted titles except for Lincoln in the Bardo, I feel somewhat qualified to give an opinion.
I’m pleased to see that one of my top three Booker titles has made it to the shortlist. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was selected by the novelist Kamila Shamsie because she felt ‘it has everything”. She specifically calls out its characterisation, intricate structure and the way it makes readers think about love and friendship. My own take on this is that it’s a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. It’s short but rich in themes and has a very strong emotional pull.
Also delighted to see Hilary Mantel on the shortlist even though I thought her later novel, Bring Up the Bodies (another of my top 3 ) was stronger than Wolf Hall. The judge for this decade, broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo called Wolf Hall “fantastically readable and unbelievably complicated.” I’m not going to argue with that assessment – Mantel’s achievement was to take a historical figure typically portrayed as cold, distant and manipulative, and make him human. But in Bring Up the Bodies, I think we get an even stronger sense of the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by her protagonist Thomas Cromwell as he seeks to serve his master the King. Bring Up the Bodies just missed out inclusion in the assessment for the 2000s where it would have been pitted directly against Wolf Hall. Instead it was evaluated by a different judge who perhaps didn’t have Mayo’s declared love of historical fiction.
But that flip into a new decade meant it was up against the final title in my top 3 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Lincoln in the Bardo was a hot tip to win the prize last year but it wasn’t universally praised – some readers and bloggers found it too fragmented. Flanagan’s novel however I thought exceptionally well constructed even though it moved across time periods and countries. Leaving this off the shortlist was a miss I thought by the judge, poet Hollie McNish.
What of the choices to represent the remaining decades?
For the 1970s the writer and editor Robert McCrum judged In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul as the best of the decade. I think he drew the short-straw by being given the 1970s since there were few, in my opinion, stand out winners. Naipaul’s book was one I read early on in my Booker Project and you can maybe gauge my reaction to it from the fact that I haven’t as yet posted a review. I recall it being a strange novel where often I wasn’t absolutely sure what was happening.
My own choice would be Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea which slightly has the edge over Paul Scott’s Staying on. I never thought I would be gunning for Murdoch since I’d always thought her work difficult to penetrate but The Sea The Sea was a revelation.
As for the 1980s, I know the popular opinion in the blogosphere is that the judge Lemn Sissay made a mistake in overlooking Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I did read it though it was a struggle. I did appreciate the inventiveness of the novel but the truth is I just didn’t enjoy it so my vote would go to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for its superbly understated portrayal of a man who has suppressed his emotions for so long he cannot let them go even when this is to the detriment of his happiness.
So if I’d been the judges ( I expect a call from the Booker people any day now) my shortlist would be:
1970s: The Sea The Sea by Irish Murdoch
1980s: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
1990s: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I know I said earlier that Bring up the Bodies is better but that’s in a different decade)
2010s: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
What would your shortlist look like?
The reading public now get a chance to make their preferences know via the public vote which is open until June 25. Vote here
44 thoughts on “An alternative Golden Booker Prize”
It’s an interesting list (both the official and yours :)).
Based on the winners in the different decades (the discussion about whether the winning novel should have won is a different discussion), I agree with your choice for the 80s (Ishiguro – but only just, Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda runs it close) and 00s (I loved, like so many others, Wolf Hall).
90s is a close run thing – Byatt, Unsworth (Sacred Hunger) or Coetzee (Disgrace – which I am reading now for the first time and am bowled over by it – partly because I’ve found Coetzee impenetrable on previous attempts). I think my choice would change between these three on an almost daily basis! But I err today towards Unsworth.
Have no comment on the 70s as I have read so few of the winning books although I never took to Naipaul at all.
And of the more recent winners, like the 90s, a very hard call. Marlon James held me spellbound for most of his A Brief History of Seven Killings: Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question) made me laugh whilst Julian Barnes and his The Sense of an Ending was beautifully poignant. So my choice would be between James and Barnes..
Youve given a lot of thought to this Keith. I suspect we all have our favourites and they might differ…..I enjoyed Oscar and Lucinda too but not as much as Ishiguro. Disgrace was the first Coetzee book I read and I thought I had found a new favourite author but the next two by him I read were well below the standard of this one. I’ve yet to read the Marlon James – its one of only three I have to get around to. Jacobson I am afraid I gave up on. It felt like it was going nowhere
You are right – Finkler didn’t go very far at all but it still made me laugh!
Add me to the chorus of praise for The Remains of the Day – it’s strange omission from the shortlist.
It is isn’t it but then the whole mechanism for the prize is a bit strange
I thought it was an odd list, though I haven’t read enough of them to really come up with an alternative list of my own. It’s a very strange way to pick the shortlist though – I reckon they’d have been better putting the whole thing over to the public. I get kinda fed up with “experts” dictating which books are “great”.
can we trust the public with this after the mess they made of the 100 women writers one 🙂
It does seem a little hair-splittingly picky to accuse it of being a marketing ploy since one could simply say that that’s what all prizelists are to begin with, and I do agree that it would have been nice to have had more of a to-do made of the selection process, even if it was left to a single voice/decade in the end. I’ve not read the Naipaul and didn’t make it through Wolf Hall (but I know it was just poor timing on my part and I’m looking forward to reading it eventually and am sure I will love it as I have loved her work more generally speaking), but I certainly enjoyed the other three (but also the ones you selected as well, and Ali’s reminder of Brookner made me sit up straighter too). At least this doesn’t add any reading to your list – or will you feel obliged to reread? 🙂
Fair comment that some prizes are about marketing (hence why some companies get involved as sponsors since their name becomes associated and hence they get the brand recognition. But I don’t think they are exclusively a marketing strategy because not all the prizes do have sponsors. Some are therefore mainly about supporting authors. I’m not going to feel obliged to read the winner if its one I haven’t read – the days are long gone when I feel compelled to read anything I don’t fancy 🙂
I think it’s kind of insane to judge what could be the best book over so many years. Anyway, I voted for Mantel’s
I think she is going to be a strong contender…..
None of my personal favorites made the list, and I certainly wouldn’t have included Wolf Hall. ;). I wanted to see Possession by A. S. Byatt, and I wouldn’t have minded The Luminaries. Sometimes the judges and I are not even close to the same page. But, I can see why Midnight’s Children didn’t make it; it has already won two Bookers if I remember correctly.
I didn’t get much out of The Luminaries I’m afraid. it was okayish but I didn’t really see what the big fuss was about it. Possession was a much stronger novel
I LOVE Possession!
Today, I have learned something: in college, I was assigned Booker Prize novels! Who knew! I read both Midnight’s Children and Remains of the Day in a Brit Lit class. I just did a quick Google of the other winners and found that I’ve read even more: Possession, Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, and The Ghost Road.
I’ve also read some runner up novels: Waterland, Oryx & Crake, The Van, The Butcher Boy, On Beauty, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I had no clue that I have read so many Booker novels, but now I feel both smarter and cooler!
I like the one judge’s description: “fantastically readable and unbelievably complicated.” This is exactly the sweet spot of reading for me.
I just looked up an article about the controversy over the Booker opening up to international works, including those by American authors. One former judge, David Brauner, was asked his opinion, and I have to say I find his answer snobbish:
“Just on the microcosmic level of sentence-by-sentence the most exciting prose is being written by American writers.
“Even some of our most famous British writers would be the first to say that – people like Ian McEwan and Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.
“The people they are inspired by, by and large, are Americans.”
Dr Brauner has drawn up a speculative list of the US novels that might have won the Booker in the 21st Century, had they been eligible.
It sees prominent authors such as Cormac McCarthy (The Road), Tony Morrison (A Mercy) and David Foster Wallace (The Pale King) named as potential winners.
Almost every time, says Dr Brauner, the US contenders outshine the actual winners.
“I believe the only Booker winner who might have triumphed even in the face of the American competition would have been Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall in 2009.
“The fact that she was chosen again last year for her sequel to that novel, however, exposes the relative weakness of British fiction.”
That’s an astoundingly arrogant and jingoistic stance. For sure there are some excellent American writers but to claim that in ‘almost every case’ the American author would have won is frankly ludicrous.
It is interesting how often the Bookers have crossed the pond, isn’t it?!
I don’t know a ton about the prize, but I thought it was basically a prize for a work written in English and published in England (or the U.K.?). If they opened the prize years ago to places like South Africa, then I don’t see a problem, so long as the book is published in Britain. Then again, I didn’t read anything that required the book to be published in Britain FIRST.
The prize was restricted (until the recent rule changes to include USA) to fiction published in English by an author from anywhere in the Commonwealth, Ireland or South Africa. South African authors have in fact won the award in the past – J. M Coetzee won it twice. The novel had to be published in England but not necessarily published there first.
Ooooooh, the “not published first” part I think is a mistake. Most books in the US and up selling in the UK, too.
Whoever assigned those reading lists was a smart person though I bet the class groaned when they were attempting to make sense of the Rushdie….
Most if us loved Rushdie! We all went in a road trip from Mt. Pleasant to Lansing to see him! I still remember I drive an adorable college boy named Henry in my car 😍
I thought the criteria was a little bewildering as well and then concluded that the whole thing was simply a marketing exercise (cynical me).
I haven’t read enough Booker winners to make a call so I defer to you 🙂 From your list, Narrow Road is my pick – I was deeply moved by that book and so many parts of the story have stayed with me.
I suspect they had to come up with something special to mark the event and this way they get people reading the previous winners (hence more sales???)
I have to confess that I think the whole concept is just a marketing exercise for the prize and I have been ignoring it.
You and Kate are clearly thinking alike. Of course its a marketing endeavour but maybe its not such a bad one if it awakens interest in some of the lesser known winners. Though I would have preferred it if they had gone for a far more robust process
Looking forward to having a read through the list. Thanks for sharing
It does seem odd, though I haven’t read enough of them to have an opinion really. I’m sorry The Blind Assassin And Sense of An Ending aren’t in there though.
Oh yes the Blind Assassin was one of the ones I read early on in my project and I really loved it. Would happily read it again
Great post. I haven’t read many so I’m not really qualified to comment, but I agree Bring Up The Bodies is even more brilliant than Wolf Hall. I voted for Wolf Hall of those available.
I felt that The Remains of the Day should have been in there to be honest. It’s an almost perfect book
I wonder if sometimes the judges just don’t get subtlety and prefer to go for more showy novels
You are probably right.
Oh I like this game! I can’t comment on the 70s as I haven’t read any of the winners of that decade though I have Heat and Dust by Jhabvala burning a hole in my bookshelf. Moon Tiger is a superb novel, powerful yet understated though Remains of the Day would absolutely pip it to the post for me. (Really struggled with Midnight’s Children, as with many of Rushdie’s books).
Couldn’t go for anything but The English Patient for the 90s since (apart from The God of Small Things, which I felt pretty indifferent about) its the only other one I’ve read. But it’s another ‘classic’ where I was left disappointed. So many good ones for the Noughties but Wolf Hall does it for me as well. And the jury is obviously out for this year (no pun intended) but I’ve just finished Lincoln in the Bardo for my book club and it was FAR more enjoyable than expected. Well worth a read so you can decide for yourself, the narrative is unlike anything I’ve ever read.
And the voting strategy is bizarre. Doesn’t seem entirely fair does it?
Sorry to hear you didn’t like God of Small Things – I thoroughly enjoyed the characterisation of the twins. But we can’t all like the same things can we. Interesting to hear that Lincoln won you over. Maybe I shall give it a go after all
I agree with you and YAY Murdoch!
I had a feeling you would say that 🙂
The only one of that five I haven’t read is Lincoln in the Bardot of the others I absolutely loved The English Patient and Wolf Hall. Puzzled at the inclusion of In a Free State. The date thing is a bit puzzling I don’t understand it. I think my top Booker winners may have included Staying On by Paul Scott The Luminaries, and Hotel du Lac. Though I heartily approve nomination of both The English Patient and Wolf Hall.
I didn’t care that much for the Luminaries. It was ok but then I didnt realise each chapter was connected to a movement in the celestial bodies so maybe I am not the best judge
Thank you for this overview. You are certainly qualified! I “voted” for Wolf Hall. It was a revelation to me on how to do historical fiction right. In fact, it spoiled me for much of the historical fiction of the 21st century. I am pondering your view that Bring Up the Bodies is stronger.
That’s true Judy, it makes it much harder for other authors to shine now that Mantel has shown what is possible
I haven’t read enough of the winners to really have an opinion, yet how anyone can think that there is a book better than ‘The Remains of the Day’ ‘remains’ a mystery to me.
I love it – and the film version does it justice too