The Booker Prize, which first appeared in 1969, was perfectly timed. I decided immediately to keep in touch with the British literary world by reading the Booker prize winner each year. If extra money was available, I looked at the shortlisted authors as well. My favourites over the years turned out to be Bernice Rubin’s The Elected Member (1970), Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982), JM Coetzee’s Discovered Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (1984), Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987), AS Byatt’s Possession (1990), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998). So influential were some of these authors that I tried to read EVERY novel that Bernice Rubin, Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes wrote, even though I did not read Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending (won the Man Booker in 2011) until later. I read Peter Carey’s Oscar and Luncinda (won the Man Booker in 1988) but found it less pleasurable.
The Booker Prize aimed to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in the British Commonwealth and published in the United Kingdom. To maintain the consistent quality of this prize, judges were chosen from a wide range of disciplines, including critics, writers, academics, politicians and actors, all with a passion for quality fiction. Funded by the Booker Group, the United Kingdom's largest food wholesale operator, the shortlisted authors each received a cheque for £2,500 and the eventual winner received another £50,000.
The award was renamed the Man Booker Prize in 1974. Man Group was one of the world’s largest alternative investment managers. Man Group supported many awards and charities around the world, including the Man Booker Prize.
The Man Booker Prize extended its criteria in 2013, accepting any novels originally published in English by a UK publisher. The move meant that for the first time American novelists would be eligible for the Man Booker Prize. [With publisher lists in the other English-speaking nations already allocating valuable fiction slots to writers from the USA, many fear that this move may lead to a further Americanisation of literary culture].
In 2016 13 books were listed by the judges for The Man Booker Prize on 27th July and further narrowed down to six titles on 13th September. Because I don’t see the books until they are published in Australia, I have had to rely on James Bradley’s critique (Weekend Australian 22-23rd Oct 2016, p16-17). He suggested this year’s list was greeted with perplexity by many, not just because of the absence of big names, but because of the preponderance of debut novels and novels published by smaller presses.
For Bradley this was a sign that the judges chose to celebrate the new, instead of simply serving up obvious choices. Nonetheless it was a somewhat baffling shortlist. Not because the books included were bad but because it was difficult to make sense of what the judges were looking for.
What was it that distinguished this group of books? Why did the judges choose these six novels over other books eg J.M. Coetzee was knocked out of the Man Booker Prize, ending the South African-Australian author's hopes of winning the prize for his newest book, The Schooldays of Jesus.
Of course literary awards always faced controversies, especially those prizes that had to judge books from widely differing countries and traditions. It was even more difficult for the judges, once literary experts’ views about the role of the novel starting fluctuating widely. How should the judges celebrate the voices of writers from diverse backgrounds? Has there been a British bias over the decades and could it be avoided in 2016?
Shortlist 2016 with Ladbrokes' odds for each of the shortlisted books:
*Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Canada (Granta); 2:1
*Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, UK (Hamish Hamilton); 3:1
*His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, UK (Text Publishing) 4:1
*The Sellout by Paul Beatty, USA (Oneworld); 6:1
*All That Man Is by David Szalay, Canada/UK (Jonathan Cape); 6:1
*Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, USA (Vintage); 8:1
Who will win? James Bradley said he would be surprised if Eileen or His Bloody Project won. And although it has its pleasures, Do Not Say We Have Nothing would be a surprisingly conventional choice from a shortlist that included unconventional novels. Of the remaining three, Hot Milk was doing well with the bookies, but he wondered whether the energy of The Sellout or the authority of All That Man Is might edge it out. Robert McCrum slightly disagreed. He wrote that two titles on the shortlist deserved their place, but can be eliminated as winners. Eileen was a self-conscious exercise in noir that never quite convinced. And All That Man Is tackled the ages of man in nine episodes that did not really cohere as a narrative.
All will be revealed when the 2016 Booker Prize for Fiction is awarded at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall, on 25th October 2016.