Booker Prize Project: Done And Dusted At Last

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I thought it would take me two years at most. My project to read all the Booker Prize winners actually ended up taking eight years. 

If this had been a government-funded and managed project, I’d be basking in congratulations for coming in only six years behind schedule. Instead I’m just relieved and thankful that I did make it to the finishing line.

It wasn’t until I was deep into the project that the magnitude of what I was seeking to do became apparent.

Between 1969 when the prize was inaugurated, and 2015, which I decided would be my cut off year, there were fifty winning novels (in 2010 the Lost Booker Prize was awarded in addition to the annual prize). Of those, up the start of the project I had read just four Booker winning books. 

That left a total of 134,400 pages left for me to read spread among 44 different authors (some authors won the prize more than once). 

A tall order but I made it. And now I’ve crossed that finishing line it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of the experience. 

The Lows

Obviously one “low” is that it took me significantly longer than anticipated to finish the project. It never at any time felt like one of those chores that you keep deferring but I got distracted because I discovered so many other books that appealed more at the time. For that I “blame” all you bloggers who kept enticing me with non Booker prize books. Shame on you….

But honestly I should have known from the start that I am not the kind of person that sets a goal or comes up with a project and is able to stick to it utterly and completely. I have a butterfly mind and am easily distracted. So it was a bit of a stupid idea really to think that I would read Booker winners exclusively for any length of time.

I embarked on this project having heard a radio debate about the merits (or otherwise) of the winner that had just been announced. It got me thinking about what made some books prize-worthy and others popular but not lauded for their literary merit.

In the post launching the project I mused:

Would I get a better understanding of why some books passed the test for the judges, and others fell by the way?  Were there some novels that were considered wonderful and exceptional at the time – but have not proved enduring?

The second question proved much easier to answer than the first.

There are definitely some winners that have not stood the test of time. The very first winner in fact falls into that category.

Front cover in orange with text  Something To Answer For by P H Newby, winner of the first Booker Prize

Something to Answer For by P.H Newby was the first book I tackled in my project. I found it a baffling tale of a man in Port Said at the time of the Suez Crisis. It’s still in print but not widely read. Some of the other earlier winners like Holiday by Stanley Middleton, the winner in 1974, have suffered a similar fate.

Spotting A Prize Winner – An Impossible Task?

Did I get a better understanding  why some books passed the test for the judges, and others fell by the way? Not at all. I know which winners I thought deserved the prize but there were plenty of others that I wouldn’t have considered remarkable in any way.

It didn’t help that the judges themselves were not clear.

In 2011 the judges announced they wanted books that had a high ‘readability’ factor. But there was such a backlash to their pronouncement (they were accused of “dumbing down”) that the following year they switched to emphasising “re-readability.” The 2020 award was mired in further controversy when the judges broke their own rules and seemed to award the prize to Margaret Attwood for her body of work rather than for the submitted novel, The Testaments.

If anything, my project has led me to believe that the “best book” does not always walk off with the prize in competitions. There’s no accurate way of measuring artistic quality or weighing up the merits of books across vastly different genres. One book wins because the judgement process is skewed towards consensus. The most powerful and persuasive voices prevail. Quieter voices arguing in favour of an entirely different choice, are drowned out. On a different day with a different set of judges, the result could have been entirely different.

The Highs

Though I didn’t end up with a clear answer to my initial question, I don’t regret undertaking this project.

I read many books I would never have read otherwise. A few, like The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje were stunning.

Front cover of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatjee, winner of the Booker Prize

I discovered authors I had never read previously. Some of them, especially Anne Enright, J G Farrell and Peter Carey, are people whose work I want to read more extensively.

Admittedly there were some duds. But out of 46 books there were only four where I failed completely. Despite my best efforts, I simply couldn’t finish The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; How Late It Was How Late by James Kellman and The Famished Road by Ben Okri. 

When I launched the project I called it “a mad idea.” Now I’ve reached the end I don’t think it was mad at all.

Would I do it again but with a different prize? At the moment the answer is a resounding no. But ask me again in a year from now and you might get a different answer. See I told you I have a butterfly mind and can’t stick with anything for very long!

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 13, 2020, in Man Booker Prize and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 72 Comments.

  1. Congratulations! It may have taken longer than planned but you stuck with it. Take a breathe, rest, and then I am sure you will launch out on a new project!

  2. Well done, indeed. A suggestion for your next project – the Orange Prize, which is restricted to women writers. Yes there is some cross-over with the Booker, but I wonder if, as a woman, you would learn something of what it is about women’s writing that distinguishes their books from those written by men.

  3. wow Helen, CONGRATULATIONS.
    I liked to read your summary thoughts on the project. Only for the sense of completion, I think it would have been worth it, but you also read lots of books, got to know new authors you want to keep reading, and well, read what is sure good literature. The time doesn’t really matter, although I also would have thought that 2 years is a reasonable amount of time to read around 50 books 🙂 However, readers never do things according to plan.
    Well, I’m impressed, really.

    • I could have done it in a year if I had read only those books so yes 2 years was very doable. But I get distracted when I started seeing all sorts of other interesting challenges. It is also the usual problem that once I have to read from a list, I lose interest

      • Yes, I get what you mean. It is basically what happened to me with The classics club: I’m not reading the books from my list… although I’m reading a lot of classics. In any case, I really loved to see you have achieved your goal 🙂

        • Classics club is another one I’ve been struggling to finish – read the 50th book last month though I still have a few titles left on my list. Feels good to have finished the project though I’m still going to read classics, just not from a list…..

  4. Congratulations – a huge achievement. I’m absolutely with you on The Finkler Question , which I did read to the bitter end, I don’t know how; and as for the Marlon James – absolutely not for me. Will you continue to follow the Booker?
    I couldn’t agree more on the topic of judges’ bias and the subjectivity factor.

  5. Wow this was a huge project! Kudos to you for keeping up and completing it!

  6. Well done!! What a challenge. I wouldn’t say you had a “butterfly mind” at all to stick with it even if it did take 6 years. I do like that term of butterfly mind.

  7. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    CONGRATULATIONS! I’m so impressed that you stuck it out, and love what you’ve learned along the way. Well done!! Looking forward to seeing where your bookish adventures take you next… 😉

  8. Congrats on making it to the finish line! I once thought I’d read all the Miles Franklin winners but so many are out of print they I figured it would be impossible.

  9. Congratulations on setting a long-term goal and completing the project. Late last winter, when developing my reading plan for 2020, I decided that, since my life has been a series of research projects, I’d plan around reading projects rather than more specific challenges. So far the results are mixed, but then I didn’t anticipate the COVID-19 shutdown. Anyway, congratulations on a job well done.

  10. Congratulations! What an inspiring achievement – and I’m so glad you enjoyed the experience overall.

  11. Congratulations for completing your project. A new blog name needed now?

    • I thought about changing the name but decided against it – I wouldn’t want to go for something completely different and lose the value I’ve worked hard to gain. So it would end up as being BookTalk which is a bit of a bland “brand” name.

      • I was going to try to dissuade you if you had been 😁 After all, you’ve established your brand now and there will be more Booker Prize winning books to read in future.

  12. Well done – such an achievement and I admire you for sticking to it (I don’t think I would have). I do wonder about such prizes – particularly as tastes in literature change over the years, and some books survive that whilst others fall by the wayside. And the main thing is that you’ve read some wonderful books and discovered authors you love. We’ll leave out of the equation those you wish you hadn’t read, or didn’t finish! But now how will you structure your reading, or will you just fly fancy free as the whim takes you?

    • I did find the final books more of a challenge – I made the mistake of leaving until the end books I wasn’t excited about. What’s next you ask – no more new challenges for this year, thats for sure

  13. I hope you are mow going to read all the books on the short lists. Should take you a couple of years by current government standards.

    • I did think about that and have been listing the shortlisted titles I’ve read. But I don’t think I have the energy to make that a specific target….

  14. Well done, Karen! I’ve come to think that who wins a big literary prize is pretty arbitrary — but I do often find some real gems from a shortlist, or especially a longlist. You’re right that with different judges or a slightly different pool of books, the result would be different every time. Running a Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour this past year (and a shadow panel for it the three year prior to that), I know that the overall winner is often some judges’ second or even third favourite but happens to be the one that everyone is pretty much happy with and that doesn’t divide opinion. So I’m letting myself off the hook with vague projects I’ve had like reading all the Wellcome Book Prize or Women’s Prize winners: if there’s some that don’t appeal, I simply won’t read them.

    • Thanks for that insiders view on the realities of a judging panel. I had similar experiences when presenting proposals for new advertising campaigns or branding – it invariably ends up as a compromise.
      Your attitude to your projects sounds an eminently sensible one. There were definitely Booker prize winners I was not looking forward to reading. I was glad that I could get to a round 50 without having to read some of the most recent winners like The Sellout

  15. Many congratulations, Karen! What an achievement. Lots of awards have sprung up over the years so you could pick one with a shorter history if you decide to do it again. Best avoid my favourite, the Costa (once the Whitbread), with its five categories, though!

  16. Congratulations! A fantastic achievement!

  17. I spent so much of my working life “having“ to read particular books that I am loath to put myself in a position where I need to do that again. Very often, if I feel I have an obligation to read a book I immediately don’t want to read it. I’m sure this is conditioning from years and years in education. Consequently, a project like this really would not suit me, which makes my admiration for you all the greater.

    • That’s something I’ve come to learn in recent years – that I don’t much like reading from a list. So this year I decided I wouldn’t join any “challenges” that involve making a list. I much prefer the looser approach of a project. Which reminds me how is it going with your project to read a book from every year of your life?

      • I’m afraid that went nowhere, Karen, for exactly the reason we’ve been discussing. I got as far as 1951 and there was absolutely nothing I wanted to read when I felt I got to read something. Having said that, re-reading Pigeon Post the other day reminded me of just how much I used to enjoy working with children’s literature and so I‘ve spent the past couple of days putting together a list of authors whose works I’d like to go back to and reread. But I’m not going to put any pressure on myself; it’s just a list and if I feel like picking up something from it then I will do and if I don’t, I won’t 🙂

  18. Congrats!!! It must feel great to put this accomplishment (and that pile of books!) behind you.

  19. Amazing achievement (said the person who still hasn’t finished the much shorter EU27 project). I heard someone who had been on a judging panel say that very often the compromise candidate wins, because it’s a safe chouce, while the more out there choices have enthusiastic promoters but also detractors. So, very often, it’s the judges’ second choice that wins. (They weren’t referring to the Booker but I suspect it’s similar.)

    • That echoes what Rebecca said in her comment. I know there have been many years where the reaction from the literary critics (and intelligent readers) that they felt the wrong book had won. Problem is that there wasn’t consensus on what should have won…..
      You’re pretty close to finishing with the EU project I thought??

  20. Congratulations! I’d love to hear more about the books you liked and didn’t like. I haven’t read too many Booker winners, although I’m reading Girl, Woman, Other right now.

    • I’ll put a post up either later this week or next week. I did a mini version of this a few years ago where I selected my top 3 books. It will be interesting to see if my views have changed…

  21. Oooo that’s very inspiring because I’ve been working my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction and I couldn’t tell you how many years I’ve been at it. Luckily I never set a finish date so…

    But yeah! Congratulations!!!

  22. Huge achievement Karen, well done.

    Like you, I couldn’t finish Finkler or Brief History. Also like you, I loved Narrow Road.

    Will you keep reading the Booker winners going forward?

  23. Congratulations! I have a similar project, but it derives from the fact that I collect first editions of the winners, and so some of them are on my TBR for that reason. And somebody, I forget who, set up a website called Read the Bookers or some such name, and I contributed to it for a while.
    I don’t have many to go, so I’ll get there one day, I hope…

    • I think its The Complete Booker that is the site you contributed to. I ended up as the administrator for that but there was so little interest in posting new material that I just froze it….

      • Ah, so that’s what happened to it!

        • I sent an email to the regular contributors but there was little enthusiasm for keeping it going and since it uses Blogger rather than WordPress I didn’t think it was worth the effort of learning how to run that platform. The material is all there however, preserved for posterity

        • Yes, the platform was the main problem for me, I’d started out with Blogger as so many do because it seems easy, but I switched to WP very early and then I found myself getting in a muddle every time I went to the blogger site.
          I’m not suggesting you should do this, but it’s possible (and easy, in my experience) to export a Blogger blog to WP. I did it with my book blog (lots of text and lots of comments and lots of tags) and my travel blog (lots of photos) and had no problems at all.

        • I didn’t know you could export from one site to another. I’m not sure its worth it but still good to know its possible

        • Oh yes, I think WP was very quick to see that the best way to capture some of the market from Blogger was to make it super easy.

        • There’s another web hosting platform called Wix which is nibbling at Blogger’s heels and proving very popular . Blogger needs to watch out otherwise they may find themselves without a viable business..

        • I hadn’t heard of that one. I don’t know anyone who uses it… at least, I don’t think I do.

        • I haven’t seen it come through any of my feeds either but I know it’s gaining traction..

  24. Congratulations! This is an achievement. I thought of doing something similar with various prizes. It does seem like a monumental undertaking.

    • You do get the warm glow of satisfaction when you finish something like this Brian. My suggestion would be to start with one of the smaller lists (something that hasn’t been going for that many years) rather than the long standing ones like the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize…

  25. Well done, I think it’s a much harder challenge than it sounds. I started the same challenge several years ago and I have read an awful lot of the previous winners. However there were a run of winners between The Luminaries and Milkman I know I will never read, so that’s that.

  26. Congratulations – what an impressive accomplishment!

  27. However long it required, you are to be commended! CONGRATULATIONS!!

    What appealed to you about this particular prize?

    I have considered the same process with Pulitzer winners for fiction…but it probably won’t happen in this lifetime! 😉

    • Why this particular prize? It was the one that was the basis of the discussion in a radio programme about the value of book prizes and whether the selected books were necessarily the best book. It gave me the idea for a reading project and it just felt natural to use the very prize they had talked about.

  28. Congratulations, Karen!

    This is a project I’ve considered from time to time (perhaps with the Giller Prize?) but I know that, much like you, I am distracted easily with shiny new things. One of the benefits of this pandemic has been that my supply of print library books has dried up, forcing me to actually read some of the hundreds of books on my own shelves.

    Once again, I’m delighted for you and your grand accomplishment. You are an inspiration!

    • It did nudge me to read books I might otherwise have ignored or never in fact would have heard of. But yes it does require some commitment. I thought originally I would read them in date order but that didn’t last very long…

  29. Many congratulations. I appreciate the magnitude of this achievement – as you say 50 books might seem a straightforward enough challenge, but I know that’s very far from being the case. More challenges on the horizon?

    • I’m going to take a break from new challenges for a while. I just also finished the Classics Club one so that leaves me with my World Of Literature one to complete – I have 9 countries yet to visit but am hoping I can do that before the end of the year

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