BookerTalk

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.

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.

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!

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