Edinburgh Book Festival Saturday 23.08.2008
John Mullan (chair of the Best of the Booker), Margaret Atwood (former winner of the Booker Prize) and Louise Doughty (member of the 2008 Booker panel) sat and discussed the history of the Booker prize. Here are the points I found interesting.
1. When and why did the Booker prize enter the consciousness of the reading public?
John Mullan argued that the prize really took off in the early 1980’s due to the quality of the fiction. Midnight’s Children and Schindler’s Ark being seminal works. Margaret Atwood’s theory is a little more colourful. Given the British penchant for placing bets, she thinks that matching the Booker with the bookies was the determining factor in raising the profile of the prize.
2. Which is the best book never to have won the Booker?
Margaret Atwood: Alice Munro – The Beggar Maid (1980)
Louise Doughty: Beryl Bainbridge – Master Georgie (1998)
John Mullan: Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go (2005)
(Lizzy Siddal: David Mitchell – Cloudatlas (2004))
3. Why is the prize frequently awarded to a compromise candidate?
Margaret Atwood explained the maths with much gesturing of her hands, showing how hard it is to get unaniminity with 5 judges. Quite often 3 will love the frontrunner but 2 will veto it. So the prize is awarded to another novel that all 5 are happy with.
(Question to readers: which Booker winners do you think are compromise winners?).
Atwood also explained that the judging of the Giller prize isn’t as fraught. There are only 3 judges and unaniminity is much easier to obtain.
4. Is Midnight’s Children really the best of the best?
John Mullan: It’s a novel that wins over the readers – sometimes after many years. Malcolm Bradbury, when a Booker judge in 1981, did not vote for it. But he did when he chaired the Booker of Bookers 25 years later.
5. How was the 2008 longlist chosen?
Louise Doughty confirmed that everyone in the panel has read all the books. Michael Portillo asked each judge to submit their top 10 by email, without conferring. These lists, in which there was a surprising amount of consensus, were the starting point of the longlist meeting. Consensus titles were longlisted immediately. The remaining places were allocated after the panel debated the merits of the other nominated titles.
Questions from the floor
6. Why is the award ceremony no longer televised?
Nobody knew! Amazing – I thought this would be an easy one to answer.
7. What do the 6 shortlisted title for Best of the Booker have that is missing from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day?
John Mullan didn’t answer this either. He sidestepped tactfully by stating that he didn’t consider The Remains of the Day to be Ishiguro’s best novel. Never Let Me Go surpasses it in his opinion.
8. Question to Margaret Atwood? To which of your own novels, would you award the Booker?
Margaret Atwood: (sharp as a razor, without so much as a pause, and thereby winning quip of the festival award) The next one, dear!
EDIT: Serendipity or what? See the article published in today’s Telegraph for the early history and the early controversy surrounding the Booker Prize.