Cheltenham Festival: The literary lottery

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: The Booker Prize is maddening and arbitrary but entirely necessary, says Peter Straus

In the Spring 1998 issue of the Paris Review, the penultimate section is a question and answer on British writing. Several writers and critics were asked their views on the state of contemporary British literature. To the question: What is meant by success for a writer in Britain? Carmen Callil, chair of the 1996 Booker Prize answered: "a) esteem b) money c) sales." This seems an excellent shorthand for the effect of the Booker Prize itself. Indeed John Bayley, himself a chair in 1994 when James Kelman won with How Late It Was, How Late, commented: "Having been a Booker chair myself I don't see how the Booker Prize can ever get it right... no novelist can ever do more than please some of his readers for some of the time, and that is how it should be". A view underlined by Will Self, who commented on the judging process: "As one of the rules of the Booker Prize is that no book can be advanced for the shortlist unless one of the judges sincerely believes it will win the prize, it means that the shortlist is an inevitable dumbing down of the long list, and the winner a further senseless equivocation."

What is incontrovertible, however, is the effect of winning the prize on sales and the effect of shortlisting for raising authors' international profiles and selling their novels in many more languages and territories. Booker 30: A Celebration Of 30 Years Of The Booker Prize For Fiction 1969- 1998 has just been published in a healthy print run of 50,000 copies - midway between the sales of Anthony Burgess's 1980 runner-up Earthly Powers (40,000) and that year's winner, William Golding's Rites Of Passage (60,000).

This was the first year that the prize made a big impact on people's consciousness and sales, but the previous year could have been equally exciting if Nobel Prize winner Patrick White had not withdrawn his book The Twyborn Affair. Then it could have been a clash between a Nobel Prize winner and, in VS Naipaul, a previous Booker winner. As it was, 1981 saw the memorable clash between Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and DM Thomas's The White Hotel. Both books had already received an enthusiastic reception in America, that spilled over to England, where the shortlisting and attendant media razzmatazz led to both titles becoming bestsellers. It seems a clash of this kind, whether it is Keneally vs Boyd (1982), Coetzee vs Rushdie (1983) or Hollinghurst vs Kelman (1994), boosts sales of the shortlisted authors.

The Booker 30 illustrates these clashes and is full of fine anecdotes and unusual information. Martyn Goff's piece, especially, is required reading for those who want to know how the prize system works. Joseph Connolly encapsulates the controversy aroused by Booker selections in his essay "The Collectability of Booker Prize Winners", in which he called Keri Hulme "the joker in the pack - the most eccentric and criticised choice in Booker history".

Connolly's later assertion that the first printing of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient was quietly remaindered is simply not true - the book quickly went through multiple printings. Ondaatje did jump from being a writer who sold 17,000 paperbacks (In The Skin Of The Lion) to 600,000 copies of The English Patient - probably a similar percentage change for both AS Byatt (from Possession to Sugar) and Ben Okri (from The Famished Road to Stars Of The New Curfew).

Perhaps the Booker Prize knew of its inherent appeal from the beginning, when John Updike, spending a season in England that year, attended the first award ceremony when P.H.Newby won for Something To Answer For and his prize money equalled what he would have got in about 10 years' novel writing. The win also led to another unusual event in his life - a phone call from his mother. Two years later VS Naipaul won with In A Free State. After the decision had been made one of the judges tried to reverse it, saying it was not a novel (which might have pleased the author, given his recent views on the prize).

In that year, perhaps one of the two most eminent in terms of judges, I believe a book called Fifth Business by Robertson Davies was eligible but did not make the shortlist. It had appeared earlier in America and had attracted the following pre-publication quotes from Saul Bellow and John Fowles: "Fifth Business pleased me very much. A good man wrote this book, an intelligent, mature man. He taught me a thing or two," wrote Bellow. "Fifth Business I really did read with great pleasure. It seems to me a minor classic of its kind - one of the rare books that might have been even better if it had been longer," said Fowles. Of course Bellow and Fowles were judges that year, so my only explanation of it is that perhaps the book was not even submitted by the publishers.

However I realise that advance quotes on books by Booker judges do not necessarily secure a shortlist position; this year, for example, one of the judges, Penelope Fitzgerald, is on the cover of Philip Hensher's Pleasured ("a most impressive and disturbing book"), Allan Sealy's The Everest Hotel ("Everyone loves novels about India, but this surely is an outstanding one").

In 1972 Susan Hill was shortlisted for a book she does not care for much, The Bird Of Night, but her feelings about it were mitigated by the views of the powerful trio of judges Cyril Connolly, Elizabeth Bowen and George Steiner. Having made a churlish acceptance speech in 1973, Jim Farrell wrote later that year to his ex-editor: "I still feel that if anything of mine survives it will be Troubles though, being more readable, no doubt The Siege Of Krishnapur was a better book to win the prize with. Believe me, I'm ready to be spoiled by success, but am not too sure how to go about it!" His death in 1979 was a great loss to literature.

The Booker shortlist is often attacked for excluding the wrong books. Sometimes this cannot be helped as authors such as John Le Carre, Graham Greene, Alan Sillitoe and, latterly, John Fowles have not allowed their books to be entered. But in excluding certain titles it has put the spotlight on them and encouraged extra sales of the missing book rather than the included six - after all it is easier to buy one than six. This is most evident in 1984 with Martin Amis's Money, in 1989 with Julian Barnes's A History Of The World In Ten And A Half Chapters, in 1991 with Angela Carter's Wise Children, in 1993 with Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, in 1995 with Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin and in 1997 with Ian McEwan's Enduring Love.

The effect of being shortlisted or winning makes no actual difference to the quality of the work in discussion. It is like suggesting the longest book ever on the shortlist (the 630 pages of Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger) is better than the shortest (the 110 pages of JL Carr's A Month In The Country). Many people believe that Graham Swift's best novel is Shuttlecock which was the unlucky seventh book in 1981 and just missed the shortlist; others believe it is Waterland and others Last Orders. What is certain is that one must respect in the words of Booker winner AS Byatt:

"It is silly to regard the prize as anything but a lottery, a good publicity stunt and a way of causing passionate discussion of literature." The Booker Prize has done a huge amount for both the marketing and selling of contemporary fiction, but it neither claims to be nor is definitive - after all, five literary B-format bestsellers of recent years - Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (the individual sales of which totalled in probability more than the sales of most Booker Prize winners total sales) - did not make the Booker shortlist at all.

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi


Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015


Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore