Deliberations surrounding this year’s Man Booker Prize have gone ominously quiet. Normally by this time, there should have been leaks, threats of walk-outs, and at least one revelation that a judge has been sleeping with a long-listed author. It is almost as if the team this year have simply been reading the novels in anticipation of a civilised discussion to be followed by the announcement of what will inevitably be called a “worthy winner”.
It is not how fiction is meant to be. Where are the rows about rip-offs and plagiarism? Where are the announcements that the prize has become a joke in bad taste, yet another victim of the age of reality TV, hoodies, balloon-breasted celebrities or whatever the bête noire of the moment happens to be? The novel may not be dead but frankly all the style and colour seems to have gone out of judging them. Before this year’s panel disappear into the dustbin literary history, they should at least try to come up with small scandal. To help them, here a few highlights from an unofficial history of the prize.
1973: The winner of the prize, John Berger, startles those in the Guildhall by announcing that he is to give the cheque to the black power movement. The announcement is greeted with uneasy applause, but Berger’s attempt to get the short-listed authors to lead the audience in a rendition of “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” breaks down when Susan Hill insists on singing “Jerusalem”.
1979: The winner of the 1971 prize, VS Naipaul, fails to win again with A Bend in the River. The next day he announces that the classic novel is in decline and can only be resuscitated by one of small handful of authors.
1980: Anthony Burgess, who had previously described the Booker as “one of those silly little British games”, refuses to attend unless he is told in advance that he is the winner. Watching the ceremony on TV, he spontaneously combusts when his great rival William Golding wins with Rites of Passage.
1981: The famous “rumble in the Guildhall” ends in controversy when the judges decide that Salman Rushdie and DM Thomas will have to decide the most hotly contested Booker in years by arm-wrestling at the ceremony. DM Thomas, author The White Hotel, claims that Rushdie lifted an elbow off the table.
1983: Salman Rushdie, having failed to win with Shame, says something “extremely rude as he came out of the men’s room” to the prize’s organiser, Martyn Goff. Although no one knows what exactly was said, the conversation enters Booker mythology. Rushdie later explains that he thought Goff was a bathroom attendant and that he was asking for some lavatory paper.
1984: Hotel du Lac wins, and its author, Anita Brookner, celebrates with a glass of sherry and a depression. It is later announced that Martin Amis’s masterpiece Money had failed to make the shortlist because two of the judges said that one of his female characters behaved inappropriately in a post-feminist age.
1985: Keri Hulme’s The Bone People triumphs as the result of a literary discussion between Joanna Lumley and Norman St John Stevas, who disapproved of actresses reading books.
1987: VS Naipaul reveals that he has been thinking a lot about the state of fiction. The only two novelists worth reading are Edwina Currie and Jeffrey Archer.
1994: A Spectator diarist goes through the winner, How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman, and announces that there are no fewer than 348 swearwords in it. A columnist in the Daily Mail manages to find 357 and a there is a lengthy correspondence as to whether “poo” and “wee” should count.
2007: Writing On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan mentions that he picked up a couple of pebbles. He is accused of theft and, in front of the world’s cameras, returns the pebbles to the beech. Claims that the story was a cynical publicity exercise before the Booker Prize long-list is announced are denied by his agent.