Observations on the Booker Prize
I was a Booker Prize judge in 1997, the year in which two of the finest novels of the entire postwar period were published: Underworld by Don DeLillo and American Pastoral by Philip Roth. Either of these books would have been a worthy winner of a prize that has always anxiously excluded American writers from entry. Instead, it was won that year by Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, an admirably ambitious first novel but, all the same, one singularly lacking the distinction of the American masters. But what fun it would have been if Roth and DeLillo had been on the shortlist rather than, say, Mick Jackson and Madeleine St John, and how amusing it would have been to have watched them sitting among the black-suited diners at the Guildhall in London, working their way solemnly through their drab food as they awaited the announcement of the winner.
It did not happen. It could not happen. Or could it? Well, if the Mann Group, the new sponsor of the Booker Prize, has its way, the Booker will soon be a genuinely international prize, open to all writers in the English language. The sponsors have established a committee under the auspices of Martyn Goff, administrator of the prize since 1971, to work out how to include American fiction without increasing the overall burden on the judges. The year in which I judged the prize, there were 120 entries, which was a tiresome burden indeed; this year, there are expected to be at least 140 entries. The introduction of American titles will either result in an exponential increase in entries or an inevitable reduction in the number of titles from British writers included in what is, after all, a British prize.
When I spoke to Goff, he confirmed that the Mann Group wanted "in some way" to include the Americans. "They're not insisting on this," he said, "but they would like it to happen. We on the advisory committee are quite prepared to have a serious look at how this might be achieved - after all, the Mann Group has put an awful lot of money into the prize. If we can make it work without increasing the number of entries to, say, 300, we will do it. But I don't think it will happen before 2004."
Founded in 1968 following discussions between the late Sir Michael Caine, the then-chairman of Booker plc, an international food distribution conglomerate with close links to the old Commonwealth, and several British publishers, the aim of the Booker was to create the British equivalent of the Prix Goncourt in France, or the Pulitzer. From the beginning, a quirk of the prize was that it did not fully embrace the English-speaking world: although writers from the old Commonwealth were included, the Americans were not.
Does the Booker really need the Americans? As it stands, the prize works. It demands attention, polarises opinion. To win the Booker is a life-changing experience for most authors: they are guaranteed an immediate international readership, Hollywood interest in their work, a handsome advance for their next book, and media and marketing support. But the Booker is, in truth, no more than an elaborate game, a stylised media event. It should not be taken too seriously. To attempt to dignify proceedings, as the chairman of the judges Simon Jenkins did in 2000, through prohibiting all undisclosed leaks to the press, was to misunderstand the nature of an event that thrives on gossip, faux controversy and artificial scandal. I would welcome the arrival of the Americans.