Alex Massie

Tales of the Booker

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The Guardian, bless it, has a super feature asking a judge from each of the Booker Prize's 40(!) years to recall their experiences as a member of the panel. It's a terrific read and well worth your time. (One surprise, to me at least, the amount of love shown JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur). Anyway, some highlights to encourage you to read the whole thing:

1969, Frank Kermode:

Getting through the 60 was made easier by our not daring to take on Dame Rebecca [West]. "Miss Murdoch writes good and bad novels in alternate years," she said. "This is a bad year." Muriel Spark: "clever but too playful." And out they went.

1974, Ion Trewin:

We were three judges - AS Byatt, Elizabeth Jane Howard and me. At the shortlist meeting, Jane remarked that she thought Ending Up by Kingsley Amis (then her husband) was his best book and should go on the shortlist. I looked first at Antonia, and then at Martyn Goff, the prize's administrator - both remained impassive. We broke for a breather. Martyn said that as chairman it was up to me. Antonia liked the novel (as did I). On literary grounds neither of us had problems about shortlisting it, but what would the press say?

1982, Paul Bailey:

There are many things I regret doing, and being a judge for the Booker prize is one of them. For some years after I was associated with two novels I absolutely loathed and would not have even started reading in other circumstances.

1983, Fay Weldon:

As a fervent feminist (25 years back), and taking time to make up my mind, I made a joke: "I haven't got my husband here to help me decide." But one should never make jokes in the presence of the police, security or at a Booker prize judging, and word got round that I meant it. Then I had to deliver the customary chairperson's speech. After I sat down, the then president of the Publishers Association got to his feet, crossed the room and hit my agent Giles Gordon, second best thing to hitting me. I'd used the speech to reproach the publishers for giving such rotten deals to writers.

1993, Gillian Beer:

Olivier Todd, the French novelist, shrugged his shoulders at our second judges' meeting: no lunches with publishers, no approaches from agents, he complained - what an odd English bubble of propriety we were gathered inside. He was joking, but only just.

1994, James Wood:

But the absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins. I remember that one of the judges* phoned me and said, in effect: "I know that you especially like novel X, and you know that I especially like novel Y. It would be good if both those books got on to the shortlist, yes? So if you vote for my novel, I'll vote for yours, OK?"

For obvious reasons I also commend Nicholas Mosley's comments on the 1991 prize.

*I'm pretty sure this judge is now the literary editor for a Sunday newspaper.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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