The Booker Prize: a sure-fire selection or a shot in the dark?

Chance, market concerns, and bias make the intrinsic superiority of winners doubtful

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker prize, the Booker Prize Foundation launched a one-off Golden Man Booker prize, which, on July 8, crowned Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (the 1992 winner) the best work of fiction ever to have received the award. And, if the single objective of the Man Booker prize – to select ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’ – has remained the same since the award’s inception in 1968, then it would hardly seem far-fetched to label Ondaatje’s novel, which was shortlisted by five judges but finally voted for by the public, a ‘modern classic’.

Indeed, Bloomsbury has dubbed The English Patient as ‘the very definition of a modern classic’. ‘Profound, beautiful and heart-quickening,’ as Toni Morrison describes it, the novel, which is set during World War II and focusses on the revelations of an English patient’s actions prior to his injuries, ticks many of the boxes on the modern-classic checklist. It is based on a world the reader recognises as at least partially familiar, and has merited widespread, if not necessarily lasting, recognition. It was also written after the cataclysmic events of World War I and II, which undoubtedly altered the way the world saw itself: whilst classic themes of love, hate, life and death endure, they are viewed through the lens of such modern atrocities. In this instance, the Booker prize’s efforts to discern what the classics of our time are seem to have been fruitful.

Yet this begs the question, are the annual winners of the literary prize always deserving of the title ‘modern classics’? And does the award function simply to uncover the classics of our time, or give them the recognition necessary to turn them into such? Thomas Keneally’s Schlinder’s Ark (the 1982 winner) points towards the latter. Keneally himself linked the award to the public’s acceptance of the book and its subsequent infiltration into wider culture, ultimately facilitating Steven Spielberg’s creation of a multi-award-winning film adaptation, Schlinder’s List (1993), which took over $321 million worldwide on original release and has embedded the story into the minds and hearts of many.

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The award could also, of course, be said to uncover the novels with modern-classic potential, and watch as they fulfill such promise. But when many of the prize’s winners have sunk into oblivion (who now sings the praises of PH Newby and Bernice Rubens?), and when many now-distinguished modern classics have lost (think Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and McEwan’s Atonement) or been neglected altogether (such as Welsh’s Trainspotting), it looks increasingly likely that the selection and subsequent success of Schlinder’s Ark was simply down to chance, as opposed to any of the judges’ astute intuition. Keneally’s own conviction that the book’s enduring fame was merely ‘lucky’ only underscores the seemingly arbitrary nature of which Booker prize-winners turn out to be modern classics, and which never quite attain such a title.

That the prize resembles a lottery in many ways seems almost inevitable when taking into account the selection process. Starting with an advisory committee, which usually consists of a writer, two publishers, a literary agent and a bookseller, amongst others, there is already a hint that, as the UK publishing industry sets out to benefit from the prize, the prize is not solely concerned with identifying the ‘best’ book, but also the most marketable. The advisory committee then chooses a judging panel of literary critics and writers, as well as the likes of journalists and politicians, who get the final say.

Yet despite Booker’s insistence that their ‘common man’ approach to choosing juries is ‘why the “intelligent general audience” trusts the prize,’ the notion that a select number of people could correctly make an inherently subjective decision only reinforces the unreliability of the prize’s verdicts. Author Amit Chaudhuri points out that the judges ‘have to read almost a book a day’ before coming to a conclusion, prompting his labelling of the award as ‘absurd’. A. L. Kennedy, a 1996 judge, went as far as to call the prize ‘a pile of crooked nonsense,’ with the winner being determined by ‘who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who’. If we (rightly or wrongly) factor bias into the process as well as chance, J. M. Coetzee’s description of the Booker as ‘the ultimate prize to win in the English-speaking world’ rings somewhat hollow.

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This is not to say, of course, that the Man Booker prize has nothing going for it. The award has brought well-deserved attention to renowned modern classics such as Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (the 2002 winner) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), and it would be unfair to suggest that just because not every winning novel has infiltrated into wider culture, the prize is equivalent to a simple lottery-draw. Whilst it may not be a flawless means of discerning what the modern classics are, it is a meaningful stepping-stone towards being able to make such a judgement – a judgement that is, finally, intrinsically subjective by its very nature anyway. Booker would perhaps be wise to incorporate the vote of the public into each year’s decision-making process as a means of reducing the role that chance and bias play, rather than restricting it to the Golden Booker prize alone.

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