Scandal! Secrets of the Booker Prize

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The Independent Culture

The Booker Prize was set up in 1968 after Tom Maschler, MD of the publishers Jonathan Cape, approached the Booker Brothers. Booker, a cash & carry company, had a highly profitable "Authors Division" then that published a galaxy of writers including Agatha Christie, Dennis Wheatley, Georgette Heyer, Harold Pinter.

When Salman Rushdie was shortlisted for the second time (for Shame in 1983), a journalist at the Guildhall asked if winning twice was important to him. Rushdie assured him that he was happy with one Booker Prize already, that he'd be pleased to step aside and let another, perhaps younger, perhaps lesser-known talent step into the limelight. Shame didn't win. Later, the same journalist met Rushdie in the Gents and said, "Bad luck, but as you said, you've already got--". "Oh fuck off," said Salman.

The prize has never been turned down, but attracts much controversy. John Berger won with G in 1972, but denounced the prize from the stage because of Booker plc's record of "sweated black labour in the West Indies". He announced that he was giving half of his prize money to the Black Power movement, which had disbanded two years earlier. Booker's sugar factories in Guyana had been expropriated by the government in 1962.

Most distinguished judging panel was in 1972 when Cyril Connolly, the legendary critic and wastrel, chaired Dr George (The Death of Tragedy) Steiner and the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen.

The worst year for fiction was 1975. So unimpressed were the judges (Angus Wilson, Susan Hill, Roy Fuller, Peter Ackroyd) by the fictional output that they came up with a shortlist of just two books.

Least worldly judge was Malcolm Muggeridge, who pulled out of the 1973 prize disgusted by the sex in the books he'd had to read.

Schindler's Ark won Thomas Keneally the prize for the year's best fiction in 1982. Shortly afterwards it was published in America as Schindler's List, in the "non-fiction" category.

At 35, Roddy Doyle was the youngest-ever prizewinner, for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which was also the biggest-selling Booker winner.

In 1985, the actress Joanna Lumley was the first "celebrity judge" to be included among the usual line-up of novelists and literary journalists on a Booker panel. "The so-called bitchy world of acting was a Brownies tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing," she later commented.

Beryl Bainbridge is the Booker Bridesmaid. Her novels have been shortlisted four times, but she has never won.

Ben Okri, whose The Famished Road won in 1991, was the only author to recite a poem as an acceptance speech. When Keri Hulme won with The Bone People in 1985, the prize was accepted on her behalf by a singing collective of Maori tribeswomen.

Kingsley Amis, winning with The Old Devils in 1986, bought new curtains with his prize money. A S Byatt (Possession, 1990) put hers towards the cost of a swimming-pool.

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (which won in 1981) was awarded the Booker of Bookers in 1994, on the prize's 25th anniversary.

The prize has been split only twice: in 1974, between Stanley Middleton's Holiday and The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer; and in 1992 when Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger shared it with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. When it was announced that "the winner of the 1992 Booker Prize is ... shared", the audience silently digested the information that the singer Cher might have won the world's top fiction prize.