On the 2018 Man Booker Prize

Merritt Moseley

Winter 2019

The Man Booker Prize, which started life as the Booker-McConnell Prize in 1969, celebrated its fiftieth year in 2018. Hardly the oldest British book prize (the Hawthornden and James Tait Black prizes both date from 1919), the Booker is nevertheless the most prestigious. It provides fifty-thousand-pounds and immediate celebrity to its winner; its deliberations are front-page news for months; and large sums are wagered on the outcome with Britain’s bookmakers. When Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize on October 16 for her novel Milkman, the announcement came at a glittering evening banquet in London’s Guildhall, covered live on the BBC.

The Man Booker organization has always been shrewd about publicizing, expanding, and tweaking the franchise. For instance, there has been a Russian Booker Prize and a Man Asian Literary Prize. In 2018 these extensions of the main business included the awarding of both the Man Booker International Prize and the Golden Man Booker Prize.

The Golden Man Booker Prize follows two earlier collective or cumulative awards. In 1993 the Booker’s twenty-fifth anniversary was marked by the selection of a “Booker of Bookers.” Three men, all previous Booker judges, gave the award to Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children, the 1981 winner. In 2008 the organization celebrated the fortieth year with “The Best of the Booker.” This time the winner was chosen by a public vote from a short-list provided by the organization, and the winner was once again Midnight’s Children.

For the golden anniversary, the Booker Foundation recruited an inventive mixture of expert judges and the general public. The fifty-year stretch was divided into five ten-year periods. Each of them was assigned to one of five judges: writer and editor Robert McCrum, poet Lemn Sissay, novelist Kamila Shamsie, novelist and broadcaster Simon Mayo, and poet Hollie McNish. The judges then reread all the winners from their assigned stretch and named the best novel. These were, for 1969-78 (“the seventies”) V. S. Naipaul’s 1971 winner In a Free State; for the eighties, Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987); for the nineties, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992); for the aughts, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009); and for the teens, George Saunders’s 2017 winner Lincoln in the Bardo.

Reaction to the short-list seemed generally favorable, given the slight oddity of relying so much on one judge’s opinion. The failure of Rushdie to make the list, which could conceivably mean that his book has been lauded enough already, was combined with broad satisfaction that the less-celebrated Penelope Lively also won out over Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro and double Booker winners J. M. Coetzee and Peter Carey. Some were bemused by the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo. The Booker Foundation had stipulated that the “best novel” was to be the novel that had stood the test of time; since Saunders’s book won in October 2017, it had stood the test of about eight months. Finally, about nine thousand people voted on the Guardian website to produce the winner, Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

Ondaatje himself demurred at any idea that his book was the best of the best, and insisted that many wonderful books have never even been Booker-nominated. The English Patient was an odd winner in one way, at least: it was not even a clean victor in 1992, sharing the prize with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. (Nineteen-ninety-two, one of two years with divided results, led to a change in the rules so that there can only be one winner per year.) Ondaatje also thanked Anthony Minghella, who directed the film version of The English Patient, tacitly acknowledging that an Oscar-winning movie can help a novel with a popular vote.

In the Washington Post, Ron Charles summed up some of the problems with the Golden Booker, which he called an “orgy of literary eminence . . . designed to reaffirm the Booker as an arbiter of supreme excellence.” He wondered if the voters had actually read all the books from which they were choosing (a question occasionally raised in the past about the official Booker judges), pointing out that “books we’ve read are always better than books we have not read.” Despite such concerns, the winning novel was as good a choice as could have been made in what is really an impossible selection.

The International Prize, first awarded in 2005, was originally a biennial award for a lifetime’s work given to any author from any country whose work was generally available in English: among the winners were Chinua Achebe and Philip Roth. Since 2015 it has been an annual award given to a single novel translated into English, with the fifty-thousand-pound prize divided between author and translator. The 2018 winner was Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, a well-established Polish writer (translated by Jennifer Croft).

Tokarczuk’s novel is a fragmented narrative and something of a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities, loosely but brilliantly arranged around the theme of movement. In a key passage, a distraught woman meets a member of a mysterious group called the Bieguni, who tells her, “Whoever pauses will be petrified; whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling . . . Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.” Bieguni is the Polish title of the novel.

Merritt Moseley is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and has been covering the Man Booker Prize for the Sewanee Review since 1993.

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