Why I Love the Booker Prize

I’ve always loved the Booker Prize, and tried to read as many nominees as possible. You could say it’s always been my favorite literary prize.

man booker logoMy annual goal is always to read the whole of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. I never achieve that goal, but then the purpose of goals like that is aspiration. Why do I have this reverence for the Booker when I don’t attach any special significance to any other book award? The answer is that the Booker is inextricably tied up with my personal ‘Golden Age’ of reading, the time I woke up to the joys of reading for more than simple distraction.

As background, you should know that in secondary school in Ireland I devoured every book about WWII and Vietnam I could find, dipped into the usual science-fiction and fantasy classics (2001, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and regurgitated the accepted interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea for my final exams. I wasn’t a particularly good English student, but I enjoyed stories. After graduation, lacking any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and scratching the itch to travel, I moved to the north of England for college.

What I lacked in the way of intellectual stimulation from my classes (business and computers –- Hey, it was the end of the 1980s, greed was good, and computers were the thing to study!), I found on the shelves of the local WHSmith and in the discussions on The Late Show. Before you snigger too much, consider that I came from a small town without a bookstore. Discovering writers like Pynchon — then in the news with his ‘comeback’ novel Vineland — Eco and Rushdie, seemed to take the tropes of my escapist teenage reading and transform them into the social commentary of “real” literature.

bkofevidenceMy ‘problem’ was that although I loved to read, I didn’t know a thing about literature. I needed guidance and initially found it at the bookstore. I was an undiscriminating reader, devouring my share of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz novels, but the merchandising decisions of my local WHSmith – the only bookstore in town – introduced me to many new authors and impressed the importance of the Booker Prize on my mind. Cardboard displays of the shortlist (the first year I remember saw Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day pitted against Banville’s Book of Evidence and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, among others) looked terribly cool to my young self.

Having had the name ‘Booker Prize’ impressed on my mind, I then heard and saw it everywhere. Articles on the shortlist in the Sunday papers, editorial cartoon’s lamenting the “difficulty” of reading the Booker contenders, and interviews with authors on The Late Show.

times arrowAt the time, the BBC was renowned for great arts programming, and I loved The Late Show, then hosted by future bestselling author Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) and future leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (who later authored a Booker-nominee himself, Scar Tissue). The Late Show made me aware of the contemporary arts scene, giving authors and poets the cultural cachet of the indie rock stars with whom they shared the stage. Mainly, I think it was all the Booker hoopla that caught my imagination: the betting, the breathless marketing copy, the front-of-store displays and the entertaining reviews in the papers. Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a book I read because of a fabulously rancorous debate over its merits on some arts show, blew me away (but I haven’t dared go back to see if it still does). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was required reading for anyone interested in the arts, and debating the fatwa, whether you’d read The Satanic Verses or not, was a never-ending conversation among the politically awakening students in my circle for a time.

qmWith the controversies (Was James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, an unreadable book? Was The Unconsoled a worthy follow-up to Remains of the Day?), the clever marketing and the consistently high quality of the books, the Booker was simply the most entertaining of literary prizes, and it still is. I’ll be online refreshing the Man Booker website to learn the shortlist on September 8, and I’m currently working my way through some of the long list (I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man is my favorite thus far.  Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is beautifully observed and written, but I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.).

Although I can no longer watch the BBC arts shows dissect the nominees, the blogosphere provides plenty of discussion and commentary. Below are some links to blogs where readers are also working their way through the longlist and some especially interesting interviews with the nominated authors.


The 2009 Longlist

Interview with Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

Farm Lane Books Blog — reading her way through the longlist

@Suejustbooks – a bookseller who doesn’t blog, but tweets her impressions

Both Eyes Book Blog – has reviewed several of the contenders

Review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn from the LA Times

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  1. uninvoked’s avatar

    Every time I’ve read “real” literature I’ve been disappointed. To me, it just means the book has been ruined by someone losing sight of the goal (telling a good story) for doing something unique. (Telling the entire story in haiku just to be different. This actually turned out well in the Zombie Haiku book, but trust me its not always like that.)

    I just want to read a good story, without having to sort out what the author ‘really’ meant.

  2. Jess’s avatar

    This is a great post! It’s great to be a book nerd!

    I always mean to at least read the winner of the Booker but I never do. I started reading The White Tiger but it was overdue so I had to rush it back to the library! Now I think I’m getting my awards confused though….

  3. Rich’s avatar

    No, you’re right, White Tiger won the Booker. I haven’t read it either — it didn’t really appeal. Hopefully, I’ll get to it one day and it’ll be far better than I expect. Sometimes the most-interesting books seem to be the ones that didn’t win, that were a little too rough-edged to gain consensus among the jury.

  4. Rich’s avatar

    I’m being facetious, of course, because I don’t really know what to call “real” literature. Different bookstores categorize novels under various categories: fiction, literature, genre, contemporary fiction, chick lit. Whatever! It’s all stories. My point is, back then I was aware there was a difference between the action /adventure novels I killed time with and the “other” kind of books that won awards. The great thing about the Booker was it made me want to read these, and provided a sense of security that the books would be good. Happily, many of them have been.

  5. Marie’s avatar

    I’m a big fan of the Booker too. I love using it to pick books to read and discover new authors. I discovered it in college when I first read AS Byatt’s winner “Possession” and read so many great winners and long- and short-listers, and I still think it’s the creme de la creme of literary fiction.

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