- Margins of Fact and FictionThe Booker Prize 2009
During the years that I have been reporting on the Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize) in these pages, I’ve made the point that, while celebrating the best novel in English by eligible novelists is the official aim, stirring up conflict and outrage is important, too. Perennial arguments have bubbled over whether the book should be readable or literary (implying difficult and unpopular); over the role of foreign authors versus the homegrown; and over whether judges should scout for new, unknown talent or reward veterans—all to the satisfaction of the publicity-savvy organizers. Reporting on the award in 2008 to Aravind Adiga’s mediocre The White Tiger, I suggested that perhaps “the judges should look once again at established authors of a certain age. . . . Even middle-aged British authors ought to be given another look.”
I am happy to report that, though my suggestion may not have played the decisive role, last year’s prize process has swung back in the direction suggested. The shortlisted books in 2009 were A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, J. M. Coetzee’s Summertime, Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger.
All these authors but Coetzee are English; their ages range from Foulds’s 35 years to Byatt’s 63, and all are established, oft-published writers, with Byatt and Coetzee both being previous Booker winners, and with Sarah Waters’s having been twice previously shortlisted. The six finalists were the survivors of a longlist that lacked the obvious heavyweight names who can be described as “snubbed.” The longlisted Sarah Hall, Colm Tóibín, and William Trevor, however, had all been shortlisted before, Trevor several times.
The diarist for the Times Literary Supplement, James Campbell, writing before the announcement but for publication after it, tried to handicap the winner this way:
The Man Booker Prize has never been won by the bookies’ favorite, which means Hilary Mantel had scarcely a chance of success. The Booker Prize has never been won by the same author for a third time, which ruled out J. M. Coetzee. The Booker Prize has never been won by a former judge, which made it hard for A. S. Byatt. It is five years since the prize was won by a British writer—tough going for Sarah Waters, Simon Mawer, Andrew Foulds, Byatt, and, again, Mantel. That would have left Coetzee as the [End Page 429] credible candidate, had not history already decreed him a loser. Waters has previously won the Ellis Peters Dagger, and everyone knew in advance that crime writers don’t win the Booker. Foulds picked up the Costa Award for a collection of poetry earlier in that year, and no one, as the Guardian told us, had ever won “significant awards in different genres in the same year.” According to history, the 2009 Man Booker Prize should not have been awarded at all. We go to press before the result is known, but are confident that history is the loser, at last.
In the event, Hilary Mantel won for Wolf Hall. It seems to have been a result that pleased almost everybody except the bookies, who reportedly faced a record payout. Something happened in August—some sort of consensus congealing around Mantel—that led to vigorous wagering on her to win and to bookmakers lowering the odds from 12–1 to 5–2 over a weekend. Eventually she was the odds-on favorite at 10–11.
Though it became known that the judges were not unanimous in their decision and had to go to a secret ballot won by Mantel on a 3–2 vote, none of them publicly complained, as has happened in the past, or resigned in protest, or even revealed the runner-up. The judges were James Naughtie, an author and broadcaster (the chairman); Lucasta Miller, a biographer and critic; Michael Prodger, the literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph; John Mullan, an academic and literary journalist; and Sue Perkins, best known as a comedian and hence the outsider judge...