Archive for August, 2014

The Booker Prize – Notable Controversies (by Jen Huyton)

Nothing excites the British literary establishment more than the Man Booker Prize. A prestigious and much-anticipated award, speculation both before and after the contest is rife. Bets and predictions fly (this year is unusual in that bookies appear to be stumped for odds), and, as is only to be expected with such an intense contest, controversy is frequently rife.

Berger and the Black Panthers

In 1972, not long after the contest began sponsorship under the Booker Group (then Booker-McConnell), the winning author was John Berger, with his novel ‘G’. ‘G’, a modernist novel about a WW1 Don Juan figure who seeks little other than personal pleasure, was not only a heartfelt examination of the emotional psychology of a libertine, but also slyly undercut the oppressive and elitist political system of the time. This was fully in-keeping with Berger’s Marxist views – something which the Booker group would undoubtedly have wished the judges to note. However, artistic merit overcame political scruples (and rightly so), leading a beaming establishment to award the prize to Berger. This he duly accepted – but used his acceptance speech as a platform from which to launch a tirade of invective against the prize itself, the notion of literary competition and (most prominently) Booker-McConnell for their involvement in the Caribbean sugar trade (which he considered the primary cause of the area’s economic trouble). He went on to donate half of his winnings to the British Black Panthers, who shared with him an equality-based socialist political stance.

Last Minute Decisions

The prize, however, continued to run, marred by the occasional authorial spat and judging controversy. There was a notable incident in 1983, when judge Fay Weldon was forced to choose between Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shame’ and J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Life And Times Of Michael K’. Opting for Rushdie after what has been described as ‘arm twisting’, she changed her mind just as the result was put through. This led to queries regarding the judging process, and accusations of ‘fixing’ from many quarters.

The ‘Trainspotting’ Standoff

No significant controversy, however, would occur until the early nineties, when the 1993 longlist included Irivine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’. Now acknowledged a masterpiece of modern literature, and by far the most critically acclaimed of Welsh’s oeuvre, ‘Trainspotting’ at the time deeply offended the sensibilities of two (unnamed judges). Like the later film release, the book came under fire for ‘glamourizing’ heroin use. Most literary and medical authorities agreed that, far from ‘glamourizing’ heroin addiction, the book portrayed the vile realities of heroin addiction and the struggle it can be to come off the drug with an accuracy which potential users would find off-putting. However, the offended two threatened to walk out were the book to remain on the longlist – and it was accordingly pulled. ‘Trainspotting’ has since gone on to fame, fortune, and an international renown far beyond that which the Booker would have brought it, so this may not have been a bad thing…

An ‘Execrable’ Choice?

It is almost inevitable that the choice of winner will prove controversial for some – but few winning choices have proven quite as controversial as 1997’s winner – ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. Carmen Callil, chair of the 1996 Booker judges and founder of Virago Press made her views on the choice abundantly clear in a televised interview, during which she described the book as ‘execrable’ and stated that it should not even have been shortlisted. Back in Roy’s native India, politician EK Nayanar asserted that the book had not won because of any literary merit, but because of its anti-communist stance (which he felt would go down well in the West). Others came to an equally spirited defence of the book, causing sparks to fly and this to be one of the Booker’s more memorable years.

Bedroom Decisions?

In 2001, former judge A.L. Kennedy denounced the Booker prize in typically strong terms. She accused it of elitism, claiming that the prize was determined not by literary merit but by “who knows how, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. This statement delighted those who had previously accused the Booker of favouring only a certain, well-connected kind of literati, and reignited the idea of prize-fixing. These ideas have smouldered hazily around the Booker Prize ever since – which perhaps accounts for the surprising amount of relative newcomers in this year’s longlisted batch. After all, literary newbies can hardly be accused of using their book-world connections to get their hands on the prize – can they?

Contributed by reader, Jen Huyton.


August 7, 2014 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment


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