10.18.11

Booker Goes Bookish

Julian Barnes was the odds-on favorite to win the 2011 Booker Prize, but in a year filled with controversy, public sniping over readability, and a competing prize, it was still a surprise. Lucy Scholes reports from the winner’s party.

Tonight, from the annual ceremony at London’s Guildhall, Julian Barnes was announced as the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner for his novel The Sense of an Ending. Although he was resolutely not talking to the press, I managed to speak to him briefly in the early hours of the morning at a party given by his publisher (Jonathan Cape), as he held a well-deserved cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Despite his much-quoted earlier description of the prize as “posh bingo,” the beaming smile on his face betrayed the fact that he was obviously overjoyed by his win. And when I asked him what he’d made of all the media attention surrounding this year’s judging process, he told me that while he sat listening to the chairman of the judging panel, Dame Stella Rimington, defending their inflammatory comments premising “readability” above all else, he “felt sure it was going against me.” I congratulated him on a “well-deserved win” and he commended me my alliteration, smiling profusely all the while. 

It goes without saying that each year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist is greeted by a few groans of “I can’t believe they left so-and-so off it” and “What’s so-and-so doing on it instead?” And it’s a prize that continually keeps us guessing right up until the announcement itself, as supposed “hot favorites” are regularly passed over for underdogs. But this year the furor around the shortlist reached a fever pitch that’s never quite been seen before. 

When the shortlist was announced on Sept. 6—Barnes's The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape), Carol Birch's Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate Books), Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers (Granta), Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail), Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English (Bloomsbury), and A. D. Miller's Snowdrops (Atlantic)—it was greeted with outrage that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (and, to a lesser extent, Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side) hadn’t been included. Odds were immediately placed on Barnes as the favorite: after all, this was the fourth time he’d made the shortlist, and surely he was due a win? 

Defending their somewhat surprising choices (putting aside the glaring omissions for a moment, both Pigeon English and Snowdrops are debut novels, and Snowdrops, a thriller set in Moscow, teeters dangerously on the edge of genre fiction), the judges—writer and journalist Matthew d’Ancona, author Susan Hill, author and politician Chris Mullin, and head of books at the Daily Telegraph Gaby Wood, chaired by Rimington, author and former director-general of MI5—were quoted on various occasions as stressing “readability” as a key criterion informing their selection process. A statement that, despite an increased emphasis on the importance of sales figures in what people are still arguing is a dying industry, incensed some of the literary movers and shakers in the publishing world. 

Andrew Motion—former poet laureate, a trustee of the Man Booker Prize, and the chair of last year’s judging panel—voiced his fears that the attitudes of this year’s judges were encouraging what he called a “false divide” between highbrow literature and readability. 

The judges, however, have stood firmly by their decision-making criteria (Rimington gave a defensive speech at the award ceremony Tuesday evening). Chris Mullin was quoted as saying that the books selected “had to zip along,” and Susan Hill’s now-infamous tweet, “Hurrah! Man Booker judges accused of ‘dumbing down.’ They mean our Shortlist is readable and enjoyable,” didn’t exactly smack of embarrassment. In fact, according to figures given in an article in The Guardian, Hill was, quite literally, on the money, as this year’s shortlist had already sold double the copies of last year’s. 

The opposition then upped its game in the form of a widely publicized rival prize. Spearheaded by Andrew Kidd of the Aitken & Alexander literary agency, based in London, and backed by an impressively accomplished literary team including John Banville, Pat Barker, Mark Haddon, Jackie Kay, Nicole Krauss, Claire Messud, Pankaj Mishra, and David Mitchell, The Literature Prize aims to “establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence.” The judges will, we have been assured, only be considering novels “unsurpassed in their quality and ambition.” Although it’s still early days—most significantly, they still have to secure funding if the venture is to go ahead, something the Booker hasn’t had to worry too much about since Man Group started sponsoring it in 2002—it’s certainly setting itself up as something that will do the exact job the Booker is seen to be failing to do. As Jackie Kay, one of The Literature Prize’s supporters, said: “It is a sad day when even the Booker is afraid to be bookish.” 

However, if “readability” really is the way forward as far as the Man Booker Prize is concerned—and this will depend on who’s chosen to make up future judging panels, for, as Rimington recently explained, “I do really think you have to see both the long and the short list in terms of the people who are making the choices” (this year, journalists and writers of thrillers and suspense novels)—then The Literature Prize, unless it follows the same path as the Booker, will hardly be its competition. 

The entire evening could be summed up by Barnes’s one-liner as he entered the party to loud applause: “I was very tempted, when I got to the podium, to shout 'bingo!'”

At the party, the atmosphere of celebration—the moment the winner was announced, champagne corks popped and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” blared over the sound system—was tempered slightly by the slings and arrows that have been bandied about in the run-up to the prize. Two publishers, both of whom wish to remain unnamed, told me in no uncertain terms that the judges' talk of “readability” over literary skill has made a mockery of the previously esteemed prize. “What else could they do,” explained one, “but award it to Barnes. They realized all too late that the majority of their shortlist was ill chosen.” Indeed, Alex Bowler, one of the editors at Cape who attended the dinner, told me that the entire evening had been informed by “the ghost of the books not there”: all everyone was talking about, apparently, were the omissions, not just the obvious ones from the shortlist (Barry and Hollinghurst), but also those that never made the longlist in the first place—Ali Smith and A.L. Kennedy, to name but two examples. 

Barnes himself made a gracious acceptance speech, declaring that he wouldn’t hear “a word spoken against the judges.” And, considering Rimington made a point of specifically confirming that the panel was looking at the individual books shortlisted and not at “people’s reputations or what they had written before,” Barnes can take solace in the fact that The Sense of an Ending really was a worthy winner in itself. Though whether the reputation of such a distinguished and prolific author can ever be fully disentangled from one of his individual works, I’m not so sure. Either way, there was an overall feeling that after weeks of argument, balance had been restored to the literary world. In fact, the entire evening could be summed up by Barnes’s one-liner as he entered the party to loud applause: “I was very tempted, when I got to the podium, to shout 'bingo!'”