This is what it feels like to not win the Man Booker Prize

You never know for certain when you are going to win a prize, but you know for certain when you aren’t

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Four years ago, in these pages, I described the experience of winning the Man Booker Prize. But since a man must take the rough with the smooth, it now behoves me to describe the experience of not winning it. So here’s my description. Not as good.

To be frank, I’d been expecting nothing else. It makes existential sense to me to assume failure. Count on misfortune and what’s the worst that can happen? Once in a blue moon you’ll be pleasantly surprised, that’s all. It was in such spirits, anticipating disappointment, that I made my way to the Guildhall for this week’s prize and so wasn’t disappointed when disappointment struck.

Reader, I had read the runes. Checked the alignment of the planets. Noted the sorrowing way strangers had begun to look at me in the street. You never know for certain when you are going to win a prize, but you know for certain when you aren’t. One sure sign, for me, is the appearance, the night before any awards ceremony, of a well-known literary figure who comes up behind me on whatever corner of the blasted heath of writerly hope I happen to be wandering – outside the London Library or at the bar of the Groucho Club – enfolds me violently in what I have to come to think of as the Hug of Death, and walks off.

Not a word is spoken. Not a murmur of sympathy or condolence. Just an anonymous philanthropic embrace calculated to squeeze out any last remnant of delusive expectation. How he knows what decision the judges will reach before they’ve reached it I have no idea. But he has never been wrong yet. If he doesn’t appear, I win. If it’s the Hug of Death, I lose. And this year he hugged me harder than he’d ever hugged me before.

I had no choice, for all that, but to write what’s known in the business as the Ghost Speech. The Ghost Speech is the speech you don’t expect to deliver but keep buried deep in your dinner jacket pocket just in case. No matter how certain you are of losing, you daren’t risk being wrong this one time and having to go to the microphone unprepared.

As acts of self-torture go, writing an acceptance speech for a prize you know you’re not going to win is only marginally less masochistic than writing it before you’re even on the longlist. But novelists are dreamers and fantasists, imagining the unimaginable and looking forward to what can never be. “The mind dances,” Dr Johnson says of those who delight too much in silent speculation, “from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which Nature and fortune, with all their bounty, cannot bestow.” Condemned to which pitiable folly, writers carry around innumerable acceptance speeches in their heads for prizes that do not yet exist, and for which their work would be unlikely to be considered even if they did.

I made a modest essay at a Ghost Speech this time round, a precautionary few words, no more. In it I told the true story of an encounter with a shirt salesman the day before. I had taken my dinner shirt from the hanger on which it had returned from the dry-cleaner only to discover blood stains down the front. Had someone at the dry-cleaners killed himself while pressing my shirt? Had he – a friend of one of the other short-listed novelists, perhaps – known to whom the shirt belonged and imagined he was stabbing me in the heart? Or had the shirt, in a macabre act of Poe-like ominousness, bled of its own accord in my wardrobe? Whatever the explanation, I had to run quickly to Bond Street to buy a new one. Without once raising his eyes to me while wrapping it, the shop assistant said, “Is this for tomorrow night’s Man Booker Prize dinner?”

I concealed all astonishment at his conversance with the prize – Bond Street’s Bond Street after all – and told him yes. Still without raising his eyes, he wished me well, saying that from what he’d read he gathered I had a good chance. (Was this Satan, the Great Enticer, speaking in a shirt salesman’s guise?) I told him I had already won once and that there needed to be an overwhelming argument for a writer to receive so great an honour twice. Finally, he looked up. “Surely the only overwhelming argument, sir,” he said, “is a good read.”

A phrase I abominate. We don’t call Mozart’s Requiem “a good listen”, or a Rembrandt self-portrait “a good watch”. “In my view,” I told the salesman, “read’s best used as a verb. It sits ill as a noun. It detracts from the active, dialectical nature of the reading experience. Literature, like the life it interprets and illuminates, is a knot intrinsicate, sitting on a high hill of truth, and he that would unpick it about must and about must go...”

Whereupon he left me to serve another customer.

At this point in my Ghost Speech I would fix the distinguished guests with a Moses-like stare and say, “But you all – lovers of the rich, the subtle and the complex – you know what I mean.”

An unnecessary admonition. Judges of the Man Booker Prize no longer speak of preferring novels that “skip along”. But the phrase “a good read”, along with its bastard brother “an easy read”, still crops up in even the most serious newspapers and journals, and cannot be outed as an idiocy too often.

In the event, the winner Richard Flanagan put it better and with more magnanimity. This too tempered my disappointment. Reader, I like him. An Australian novelist who calls me “Mate” and doesn’t talk about “good reads” – how can I not like him? The others, too. Ali, Karen, Neel, Josh – my new family. How six short-listed novelists could grow fond of one another under the pressure of such intense competition I cannot explain. But we did. Was it the last huddle of literary love before cultural extinction? Or just happy circumstance? Either way I had a good time. Only by winning could I have had a better.

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