Booker Prize winners – the books that got away
As a run up to the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the team at the Sunday Times’ Culture magazine, asked whether the judges had always made the right decision. The article is available here.
Their conclusion? A resounding no.
Out of the 49 years when the prize has been awarded, the Culture team agreed with only 12 of the winning titles. In all remaining 37 years, they believe the Booker judges overlooked a far superior novel.
They were in agreement on:
1973: The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G Farrell, describing it as a book that is “brilliantly imagined, surprisingly funny”
1980: Rites of Passage by William Golding “complex dissection of society”
1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie “Rushdie has never written a better novel … it is sumptuous, exuberant and funny.”
1988: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey ” a wonderful feat of storytelling”
1989: Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro “a subtle classic … moving and perceptive”
1996: Last Orders by Graham Swift ” a quietly authentic triumph”
1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy “totally engrossing”
1999: Disgrace by J. M Coetzee – Culture calls this his masterpiece
2004: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. The Culture team had little to say other than they thought the Booker judges were ‘spot on’ in their decision
2008: White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, the right choice among a list of strong contenders
2012: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Culture thought this was curiously flat and leaden but they didn’t have an alternative
2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders “a worthy winner’ though there were a number of other books that would have been just as deserving.
Some of these are among my favourites from the Booker Prize so I’m not going to disagree with the Culture journalists. Disgrace is uncomfortable reading but it’s a very powerful novel about post apartheid South Africa. The God of Small Things is a book full of glorious characters and Remains of the Day is just perfection.
I’m also in agreement with some of their alternative winners: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which they say should have won in 2013, is indeed a far superior book to the actual winner Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (I thought it readable but not special). Similarly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson knocks spots off the 1985 winner The Bone People by Keri Hulme though Winterson never even made it to the shortlist. How the judges managed to choose The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a complete mystery to me. I enjoyed the Amis but Atwood’s novel stands out as a truly imaginative venture into a dark dystopian world.
But there are also many years where the Culture team’s preference is for a book I don’t believe did deserve to win the Booker.
Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn instead of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall seems a very strange choice for example. Ditto David Lodge’s Changing Places is an enjoyable read but doesn’t stand out as remarkable so I wouldn’t rate it higher than the actual winner, Heat and Dust by Ruth Jhabvala.
The choice that really made my eyebrows arch was 2014 which, according to Culture, should have been won by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See instead of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I couldn’t even finish Doerr’s novel; it was far too heavily laden with adjectives and contained many anachronistic Americans whereas Flanagan’s novel was beautifully written and engrossing from start to finish.
I suspect this is one of those exercises where you could get a different result for every group of people you asked to participate. Each of us will have our favourites as well as titles that we struggled to understand what it was even doing on the short or long list (Ben Okri’s The Famished Road falls into that category for me).
Over at Goodreads, there is a group called The Mookse and the Gripes which whose members do their own rankings and then combine the results. Their league table from this collective effort puts Remains of the Day in top position out of all the Booker winners. Midnight’s Children comes in at number 2 and then there is a surprise for the third slot – Troubles by J. G Farrell which is a book I thoroughly enjoyed though didn’t think as good as his other Booker winner The Seige of Krishnapur.
If you want to make up your own mind on whether the winners were worthy of the prestige conferred by Booker Prize success, take a look at the reviews published at Shiny New Books as their way of marking the Booker anniversary. The posts are published by decade – here is the most recent. By the time you’ll have got through all that reading, the longlist for this year’s award will be announced (actual announcement day is July 24th).
To mark the Booker anniversary this year I’m going to do two things:
- finish reading the list of winners. It’s taken me far longer than I expected to read all the winners but I’m nearly there.
- run my own ‘did it deserve the prize?’ series of posts. I’ll do these decade by decade starting next week and asking you all to join in with your own thoughts. I’ll give you a hint as to what some of my choices could be – take a look at a post I wrote last year where I selected my top 3 Booker titles of all time.
20 thoughts on “Booker Prize winners – the books that got away”
Hi, what a good topic for a post. I also like the idea of reading all the winners. Might just do the same
If you do decide to do the project it will be interesting to see if you agree/disagree with the judges choices….
Yes… That might be hard though unless I can get through the entire short list for each year…. Now there’s a project!
Oh boy that really would be tough. If you are on goodreads take a look at a group called the Mookes and the Bookish – they are planning a reading event where they look at each booker winner and decide if the book that won, was really their best
Yes I’m on Goodreads. Will have a look. I’m interested in the topic now. Thanks
I agree that some of the winners have aged better than others. The Remains of the Day and The Blind Assassin are probably my favourites.
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It does beggar belief that Margaret Atwood would be overlooked for Kingsley Amis, doesn’t it? What an interesting article, this is going to have me reviewing Booker shortlists for days!
And I would vote for Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone over The Old Devils, as it’s one of my favorite novels – though The Handmaid’s Tale has certainly been more influential. (Just not my favorite Atwood.)
Interesting. Amis over Atwood is definitely an odd choice, but I suppose views on books are always going to be subjective. Good luck with finishing your Booker reading!
Always fun to discuss winners, I agree. I haven’t read all the Bookers, but I do think Disgrace and The remains of the day are worthy winners. Both have made lasting impressions on me. I remember a few controversies over the years, one being Penelope Lively’s Moon tiger back in 1987. I liked the book, but I can’t recollect now what it was up against.
Interesting re The bone people. It’s the only book my reading group has read twice so I’d probably see it as a worthy winner!
As you say, different eyes on the prize will always yield different results.
However, context is everything. The very first winner, Something to Answer For by P.H. Newby was an important book because, set in Egypt, it signalled the whole idea of British fiction looking at the world from a post-colonial PoV. As the blurb says “Only an Englishman, surely, would take for granted that the British would have behaved themselves. In this disorientating world Townrow must reassess the rules by which he has been living his life – to wonder whether he, too, may have something to answer for?” So I think it was a worthy winner:)
I completely agree about The Handmaid’s Tale, although Old Devils is one of those I haven’t read. I suppose all prizes awarded really only reflect one panel of judges and so there will always be controversial decisions as no group of people will ever entirely in agreement over one pile of books.
Agree with the mention of vernon god little that always struck me as a weak winner
I do love Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and it’s interesting to read Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? after and compare the two. Admittedly, I have not read any of Winterson’s other novels, but not for any particular reason.
I love these sort of articles that get everyone talking. Very much looking forward to your ‘did it deserve the prize?’ series!
Thank you for all things Booker! But what about that fete at Buckingham Palace? Are you going to cover that?
My own eyebrow raising title is DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little. How anyone could choose that over Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor is a mystery but it’s decision by committee. Impossible to please every one.
Interesting post. I enjoyed reading it and agree with you on most points