One of the most prestigious prizes in the literary field launched in 1969 as the Booker-McConnell Prize. Today, it is known as the Man Booker, most often referred to as simply the “Booker,” and is administered by the National Book League of the United Kingdom. The Man Booker Prize itself is awarded to the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom, while the Man Booker International Prize is intended to compliment the Man Booker proper. In 2013, the rules were changed to allow the Booker Prize to be awarded to any novel written in English, as opposed to novels written by writers from the Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe (see Postcolonial Novel).
During the 1990s, awarding of the prize became highly controversial. Publicity stunts encouraged by the marketing power of the prize marred the prestige of the award. Many accused the prize committee of catering to either the needs of otherwise unknown authors in the right place at the right time or to the same few authors each year. Political agendas and profit motives have also received much attention in recent years, further fuelling the controversy surrounding the prize. Furthermore, there has been much debate over the qualification of the writers and other members of the prize committee.
Marketing & Publicity
Because of its prestige, the Booker Prize has become an enormously successful marketing vehicle for nominated authors and their publishers alike. It has been so ubiquitously sought that the award committee has limited entrants to three per publisher for each year. They award a £20,000 prize in late October or early November (Middlemiss). That prize money, however, is hardly worth mentioning compared to the exponential growth in book sales that follows. It is because of an almost guaranteed marketing power that the Booker is not without controversy. Even during the mid 1980s, the Booker was known to “create free publicity on a scale which makes it a major marketing tool” (Potts 27). For example, Anita Brookner had previously sold 2,000 to 3,000 of her books each, but when Hotel du Lac was announced the Booker Prize winner, sales soared to best selling levels (Goff 22).
Such an enormous potential by means of increased sales has made the Booker subject to marketing ploys heretofore unknown in the literary field. First of all, an author must make his presence known to his potential judges. It seems as though the author has to live in the literary section of London but not write about modern life there; instead, write “magically realistically.” Booker winners all should have “cool, stylish, amoral pose[s]” on the book cover. Because of the increased media attention for which the authors who win the Booker seem to strive, Richard Potts, a critic for the Times Literary Supplement quips that the author should “go for extreme publicity ploys i.e. the author should shoot his literary agent on live TV – anything to draw attention” (27).
In accordance with Potts’ observations, in 1996 four of the six writers on the Booker’s short list had been nominated before. The other two consisted of a magical realist writing about London in the 1950s and a Northern Irish poet and critic. Both of the authors match exactly Potts “criteria.” They are both well known among their colleagues, and one of them has the good fortune of being from a politically sensitive area (“Déjà Vu All Over Again” 106).
Unlike many other modern awards, the Booker committee must consist of an author, a hardback and a paperback publisher, a librarian, the chairman of the committee, the prize’s administrator, and an executive from the Booker Party, Limited (Goff 12). The actual administration of the prize is handed over to Book Trust, an independent charitable organisation whose mission is to promote reading and literacy (Goff 12), nonetheless the judges of the prize cannot seem to exist without controversy (“Judging the Booker Prize” 89).
Because of the marketing potential and the industry-renowned judges, the Booker Prize now is a very high stakes award. Authors, in turn, have more reason to tailor their work to the expectations of the Booker arbiters. On occasion, the obtuse wording of the requirements of the winning book has been exploited and has resulted in ironic results. For example, because South African authors are included in those eligible to receive the Booker Prize, twice during the apartheid regime, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, authors known for their anti-apartheid stance won the award. Some even believe that novice authors whose work could win the Booker should consider changing publishers. Even though the second publisher might not have the marketing power that the first commands, the winning of the Booker will certainly cause higher sales of the book (Goff 19). Those types of abuses definitely provide fodder for thought about the validity and the purpose of the Booker. The Booker Prize garners much attention but not always for reasons with which the prize committee would be most comfortable.
For the most part, though, Booker Prize winners are excellently-written works with well-executed themes, plots, and purposes. The books themselves are well deserving of such prizes and can provide for entertaining reading or appropriate additions to a college level literature course. Sometimes, though, the Booker Prize garners much attention but not always for reasons with which the prize committee would be most comfortable.
Winners of the Booker Prize over the past few years are as follows:
- 2017 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
- 2016 The Sellout by Paul Beatty (first non-Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwean winner)
- 2015 A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
- 2014 The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
- 2013 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
- 2012 Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- 2011 The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
- 2010 The Finkler Questions by Howard Jacobson
- 2009 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
- 2008 The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
- 2007 The Gathering by Anne Enright
- 2006 The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
- 2005 The Sea by John Banville
- 2004 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
- 2003 Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
- 2002 Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- 2001 True History of Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
- 2000 The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- 1999 Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
- 1998 Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
- 1997 The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- 1996 Last Orders by Graham Swift
- 1995 The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
- 1994 How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
- 1993 Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
- 1992 The English Patientby Michael Ondaatje
- 1991 Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
- Carver, Robert. “Tips For Would-be Booker Prize Winners: Stuff That Hamster.” New Statesman and Society. 20 Dec. 1991: 52.
- “Deja Vu All Over Again.” Economist. 26 Oct. 1996: 106.
- “Judging the Booker Prize.” Economist. 4 Oct. 1997: 89-90.
- Goff, Martin (introduction). Prize Writing: An Original Collection of Writings by Past Winners to Celebrate 21 years of The Booker Prize. London: Hodder & Stoghton, 1989.
- Potts, Richard. “Booker Time Again.” Times Literary Supplement.1 Nov. 1986: 27.
See Also Salman Rushdie
Author: Warren Jacobson, Fall 1997
Last edited: October 2017