Who'd be a Booker judge?

Asks The Independent's literary editor Boyd Tonkin, as yet another awards season descends into acrimony

Friday 21 January 2005 01:00

Judging the Booker Prize is a little (or so I imagine) like childbirth. Lots of people want to do it. Lots of people want to have done it. But no one in their right mind would want to be doing it at any single moment of their life.

Professor John Sutherland, one of my fellow-judges in 1999, has not only signed up for this gruesome gestation again (after an unprecedentedly short interval) but has been promoted to chair the judges. And this is where - a few months earlier than usual - the Booker circus runs up its attention-grabbing Big Top of rancour and recrimination, and sends in the clowns. Which include, in this instance, me. Sutherland, an inaccurate and impenitent leaker of our panel discussions, has been rewarded for his imprecisions by elevation to the chairman's role.

More of that later; first, let me pile on the agony. Parturition, at least, takes place in a semi-private space in the company of a few helpers and witnesses with a professional or personal commitment to getting it right. The birth-pangs of the Booker endure five or six months and unfold in a glare of media gossip, innuendo, spite, envy, and authentic or concocted quarrels.

All this grief lands on top of the exhaustion that comes with reaching a judgement on 130 new novels, roughly from April to October, in the gaps between trying to run the rest of your rapidly-unravelling life.

This punishment attracts a flat fee of £3,000, which - especially after you have paid the tax on it - amounts to an hourly rate that the most desperate off- the-books burger-flipper would turn down with contempt. Did I read all the books? My judgement was that perhaps 80-90 (say two-thirds) merited serious attention from first page to last. They got it. Those titles that reached the long-and shortlist were closely re-examined. I had read the winner (a short, but dense novel) three times by the night of its victory.

As for the makeweights: if incompetence or simple mediocrity becomes howlingly evident in the first 50 to 100 pages of a novel submitted for the most illustrious award in Anglophone fiction, should judges have to persist to the bitter end? No one ever insisted that we should. That strikes me as fair.

Would I do it again? Like a shot. Above all, because I am convinced that in the end we made a sound decision - a decision that mattered to the author, the culture and the reading public. With Disgrace, his icily brilliant dissection of white guilt, drift and fear in post-apartheid South Africa, JM Coetzee became the first double Booker winner and entrenched his reputation as one of the greatest living novelists. Disgrace is one of the few indisputably classic novels to emerge from the cultural and political upheavals at the close of the 20th century. Four years later, the Swedish Academy concurred and gave Coetzee the Nobel Prize for Literature.

So much for the high art. Now for the low spats. Under the stewardship of its veteran administrator, Martyn Goff, the Booker has always stayed ahead of the chasing pack of prizes. How? By shovelling sacks of grist into the rumour mill. Call him Machiavellian, or call him Mephistophelean: the infinitely wily Goff long ago, and with the evident support of the Booker management committee, decided that virtually no publicity was bad publicity.

Hence, I presume, the deeply surprising re-appointment, and elevation, of John Sutherland. The people who run the Man Booker clearly hanker after conflict. They will get it, in spades. That's great news for the media; but troubling news for the integrity and renown of the prize.

Self-righteousness is not in order here. No Booker judge has to sign a gagging order. No formal agreement forbids leaks, hints, or even full media discussions of what takes place in judges' meetings. The show runs on gossip. Goff himself famously feeds enquiring journalists a rich soup of actuality and - shall we say? - possibility. I ran into trouble myself for daring to reveal that a particular author had not been submitted by his publisher for the prize, even though no one ever marked this as classified information. But at least the beans I spilled were the genuine article.

The fact that Sutherland (who has recently retired as professor of modern English literature at University College London) should immediately have written reports on our meetings in 1999 for The Guardian is par for the Booker course. His problem, as he prepares to lead the panel for 2005 (Lindsay Duguid, Josephine Hart, Rick Gekoski and David Sexton), is that his versions of what happened on occasions struck a majority of his fellow judges as far more fictional than factual. Sutherland has said that "The committee who appointed me this time knew about all this - there are no hidden skeletons."

So this year's judges may confidently assume that support for the instant, selective and partisan leaking of their discussions comes right from the top of the Man Booker organisation.

The day after the prize-giving in 1999, Sutherland wrote in his unofficial Guardian report that in the final meeting "Tonkin ... was judiciously in favour of Michael Frayn's Headlong, as was I". This is an untruth, as Sutherland later admitted to The Daily Telegraph. It also implies that I dishonestly cast my vote for Disgrace. I admired Frayn's clever comic novel but always supported Coetzee as the most deserving winner.

Sutherland also claimed that "Everyone admired, no one passionately liked JM Coetzee", a false claim repeated without comment in The Guardian yesterday. My fellow judges, the writers Shena Mackay and Natasha Walter, certainly made a compellingly powerful case for Anita Desai's twin novellas Fasting, Feasting: a depth of enthusiasm made public when Desai was (unusually) named as runner-up by our chairman, Gerald Kaufman MP.

However, Walter and Mackay also felt incensed enough by Sutherland's version of events to write to The Guardian complaining that he "not only breached the trust of his fellow judges" but "also strays into pure fantasy". Walter and Mackay added that "We would like to dissociate ourselves from his self-serving gossip, which does not give anything like a true picture of the real passions and arguments of the judges". Amen to that.

Sutherland's taste for elaboration went further. About Ahdaf Soueif's shortlisted Egyptian epic The Map of Love, he wrote that "its anti-Zionist sentiments made some members of the committee slightly uneasy". If so, the good professor must count mind-reading among his many creative skills. As far as I know nothing was ever said to this effect. Besides, to label Soueif's nuanced portrait of the conflicting ideals that challenged British domination in early 20th-century Egypt as an "anti-Zionist" book is itself a rather ugly misrepresentation.

Burdened by this questionable record, Sutherland will have to captain the usual mutinous Booker ship in an especially decisive year. Many of the big beasts of English-language fiction have new novels due in the coming months, from Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie (all of them previous winners) to Zadie Smith and William Boyd.

Other prizes, such as the Orange and Whitbread, regularly raise their game in the fields of funding, promotion and spin-off activities. Meanwhile, the new International Man Booker Prize, which rewards a career-long achievement and for the first time allows United States authors into the Booker fold, is currently in the middle of its first - extremely demanding - judging cycle.

The Man Group, the City hedge-fund wizards who now finance the award (while its administration remains impeccably independent), will be looking for impressive returns on their generous investment. Is the controversy uncorked by John Sutherland's startling comeback quite the sort of splash the Booker wants to make? I can only conclude that it is.


David Baddiel vs Alain de Botton (2002)

The 2002 judges announced their shortlist of six books with a barbed attack on publishers for submitting "pretentious, portentous and pompous" novels.

The chairwoman, Lisa Jardine, lamented the absence of Irvine Welsh's Porno, and fellow judge David Baddiel said many entries "had a vulgar and obvious seriousness".

The author Alain de Botton said the panel was "a little attention-seeking" to complain about the heavy tone of the books, quipping that the Booker was "not the WH Smith thumping-good-read award".

Baddiel wrote a furious response on the letters page of The Times. "Can this possibly be the same man I sat next to on The People's Booker show on BBC2 last year," he demanded, "who supported Atonement [by Ian McEwan] because it was such a good read, and claimed that the eventual winner, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, was far too heavy going, not a book he would ever give to a friend, and in fact the worst thing he could say about it was that it was exactly the sort of book that wins the Booker Prize?"

John Berger vs The Booker Prize (1972)

The judges awarded the 1972 prize to John Berger, a brilliant art critic and New Statesman writer with fierce Marxist convictions, for his novel G - but did not expect the ugly publicity that followed.

The book, about a series of episodes in the life of an Edwardian Italian-English Don Giovanni, appealed to the panel "by virtue of its humanity and intellectual distinction, its grasp of modern history and sympathy with the oppressed".

Berger played true to form and launched a tirade at the dinner, rubbishing book awards as glorified horse races and accusing the sponsors, Booker McConnell, of exploiting colonial labour in the West Indian sugar plantations. He donated half of his prize to the Black Panther movement, "because they resist, both as black people and workers, the further exploitation of the oppressed, and because they have links with the struggle in Guyana, the seat of Booker McConnell's wealth, the struggle whose aim is to appropriate all such enterprises." He managed to briefly thank the judges for the award, because it represented "a response from other writers".

Nicholas Mosley vs the rest of the jury and modern literature (1991)

The 1991 prize was notable for serious artistic, rather than personal, disagreements amongjudges. Nicholas Mosley, author and son of Oswald Mosley, resigned from the jury before the shortlist was judged. He complained that the books on offer were "not serious enough" and in later interviews described most modern authors as "writing beautifully about nothing at all".

A bone of contention was the exclusion from the shortlist of Allan Massie's The Sins of the Father; indeed not one of Mosley's choices made it in.

His subsequent musings backed the idea that art, rather than personality, was to blame for the split. Writing in The Times, he said: "The other judges complained that my chosen books were novels of ideas, or novels in which characters were subservient to ideas... My point was that humans were beings who did have ideas, who were often influenced by ideas, to whom ideas were important."

Amid the brouhaha, Ben Okri won with The Famished Road.

Peregrine Worsthorne vs Sir George Walden (2000)

It was a Booker prize-winning novel which began this infamous war of words between the former newspaper editor Peregrine Worsthorne and the Tory MP George Walden.

Worsthorne overheard Walden in the Garrick Club berating Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, for its "nostalgic snobbery". Worsthorne defended the book heatedly and dismissed Walden as simply trying to be "trendy".

That could have been the end, but the pair's literary differences were spectacularly reignited when Walden was made chairman of the 2000 Booker panel.

Worsthorne wrote in his newspaper column that the decision "was too bad to be true". Walden, a former civil servant, promptly issued a riposte in the New Statesman describing Worsthorne as "obsessional" and "an ageing poseur".

A Guardian article by Worsthorne followed in which he called Walden "a monumental prat", "prone to suck up", "self-aggrandising", and "a Robespierre lookalike".

Walden struck back magnificently, describing Worsthorne as "Pantaloon ... vulgar-minded" and "a dumbo". That year's Booker winner, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, was somewhat overshadowed by the row.

AN Wilson vs the Welsh (1996)

The Welsh Academy demanded that A N Wilson, the Evening Standard's literary editor, be sacked from the judging panel on account of his "strident anti-Welsh views" - going so far as to accuse him of "out and out racism".

In a letter to the organiser, the Academy - which represented 1,500 writers - quoted a 1993 article, in which Wilson said most English people found the Welsh "dingy, untalented and sly". The Welsh had "never made any significant contribution to any branch of knowledge, culture or entertainment ... Choral singing - usually flat - seems to be their only artistic attainment". The Academy wrote: "It does you no favours to include an out-and-out racist on the panel. Indeed, such a state of affairs should not be tolerated in a civilised society."

The A N Wilson camp pointed out it had taken the Academy three years to complain and that his comments had been a pastiche of Dr Fagan, the anti-Welsh headmaster in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall ("The Welsh are the only nation in the world which has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture. They just sing...").

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