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11 October 2011

Where next for the Man Booker Prize?

Stella Rimington responds to the NS's criticisms of the shortlist.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Leo Robson’s unforgiving assessment of both the composition of the panel of judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize and the shortlist those judges have come up with has caused some fluttering in the dovecotes. In Saturday’s Guardian, in an interview with Stuart Jeffries, Rimington responded to Robson’s charge that “you wouldn’t ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks“. “People weirder than me have chaired the Booker,” she insisted. “A previous chair was Michael Portillo.” “The aim of the Booker,” Rimington went on, “was to appeal to the average intelligent reader and we [the judges] are average intelligent readers.”

Rimington’s appeal to the “average intelligent reader” is fair enough, but, as Robson pointed out, she and her fellow judges seem decidedly pessimistic about the kinds of demands that might be made on such a reader. One of the judges, diarist and former MP (and regular NS contributor) Chris Mullin said he’d wanted to choose “readable” books. But, Robson wrote, “some of us recoil from the use of ‘readable’ to mean (essentially) ‘can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly. And people who have been selected for their skill as readers should not be making a point of using ‘read’ as a noun.”

In any event, the result of the judges’ deliberations was a longlist (never mind the shortlist) that ignored, inter alia, David Bezmozgis, Philip Hensher, Hisham Matar, Ali Smith, Ross Raisin, Hari Kunzru, Belinda McKeon, David Miller, Tessa Hadley, Edward St Aubyn, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Mars-Jones, Dermot Healy.

At a press conference on 6 September, the administrator of the Man Booker Prize, Ion Trewin, insisted the judges had chosen six books “as exciting as [in] previous years”, whilst at the same acknowledging, with a hint of desperation, the “unusual nature” of the shortlist – which rather gave the game away.

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I gather there have been mutterings about Trewin’s stewardship of the Prize, and even a suggestion from some in positions of influence that he might consider “falling on his sword”. Whatever he decides to do, if, as Robson put it, “things continue as they are, it isn’t hard to imagine a time when the prize will be seen as a way not of celebrating novels, just of selling them”. Indeed, some in the literary world are wondering if it isn’t time to start another prize altogether.

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