Winners and Losers

The 12 Biggest Booker Prize Controversies

This year’s Man Booker Prize longlist is being touted as ‘the most diverse’ ever, perhaps to deflect any controversies—and there's been plenty of them.

It’s time to talk about the Man Booker Prize again. Given annually to the best English-language novel published in the Commonwealth of Nations since its inception in 1969, the Booker is one of the most prestigious awards in the literary world. This year’s longlist was described by Robert Macfarlane, the chair of the judges, as “the most diverse” ever—7 of the 13 authors are women, and 7 countries are represented on the list. The inclusiveness is perhaps intended to deflect any controversies, and the award has had many of them. It’s been criticized for being elitist, inspiring The Guardian to create the reader-voted Not-the-Booker Prize. The Booker’s also been accused of having a British bias, though it’s supposed to represent more than 50 other countries. Here are some of the most controversial moments in Booker history.

(1) No Guarantee

In 1980 Anthony Burgess and William Golding, two of Britain’s literary giants, went head to head. Burgess, nominated for Earthly Powers, would not attend the ceremony unless the committee guaranteed him a win. They could not—the final decision was made half an hour before the announcement—and Golding won for Rites of Passage.

(2) Oops

Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller, was considered the fourth favorite for that year’s Booker by the bookmakers taking bets. That is, until a page on the Booker Prize website announced it as the winner a week before the decision. Life of Pi immediately became the odds-on favorite to win, with more bets placed on it than any other Booker nominee ever. Unfortunately for the bookies, the leak proved correct, and Martel won the award unanimously.

(3) Too Readable

In 2011 the judges came under fire for a shortlist many, including the former poet laureate Andrew Motion, deemed too “readable.” Motion said that the list “opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true.” Poet Jackie Kay said of the nominees, “It is a sad day when even the Booker is afraid to be bookish.” Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, widely regarded as the snob’s pick of that year, would go on to win.

(4) Switcheroo

In 1983 the judges, with jury chair Fay Weldon still to vote, were split down the middle, with two ballots each for J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K and Salman Rushdie’s Shame. With only minutes before the scheduled announcement, Weldon cast her vote for Rushdie, only to switch to Coetzee as Booker foundation organizer Martyn Goff was calling in the result.

(5) Elitist

John Banville’s first brush with controversy surrounding the prize came in 1981, after he was snubbed for the shortlist. Banville published a letter in The Guardian criticizing the elitist preferences of the Booker judges. He facetiously asked the committee for the prize money in order to buy every copy of the nominated books and give them to libraries, “thus ensuring that the books not only are bought but also read—surely a unique occurrence.” Banville would win in 2005, but not without more controversy.

(6) ‘A Pile of Crooked Nonsense’

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In 2001 Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy had some harsh words about the prize, calling it “a pile of crooked nonsense.” Kennedy, who had been on the jury for the 1996 award, dismissed the selection process as corrupt, saying the winner was determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Of her fellow judges on the committee, who awarded the prize to Graham Swift for his novel Last Orders, she said, “I read the 300 novels, and no other bastard did.”

(7) An ‘Execrable’ Book

Hours after Arundhati Roy won the prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things, author Carmen Callil—the chair of the previous year’s committee—criticized the book on the BBC as “execrable,” saying it never should have even made the shortlist. Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes, widely considered the favorite, was decided against by the judges for being “three short stories strung together.”

(8) The Sociology of ‘Trainspotting’

In 1993 two judges threatened to quit the committee after Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, which includes vulgarity and the use of Scottish vernacular, was named to the longlist. The two judges said their feminist sensibilities were offended, and the book was subsequently pulled from the shortlist. Welsh has made no secret of his disdain for the prize, calling it “highly imperialist-orientated” and saying that any claim that it’s “an inclusive, nondiscriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology.”

(9) Modern Poverty

When John Berger won the fifth Man Booker Prize in 1972 for his experimental novel G., he took the opportunity to criticize not only the nature of the prize, but Booker McConnell, the English food wholesaler that served as the Booker Prize’s first sponsor. In his acceptance speech, Berger called the award “distasteful” and accused Booker-McConnell of being responsible for the “modern poverty of the Caribbean.” He donated half his £5,000 to socialist activists.

(10) ‘The Most Perverse Decision’

John Banville, no stranger to Booker controversy already, was a 7–1 underdog to win the 2005 prize for his novel The Sea. In one of the Booker’s most surprising decisions, The Sea bested the heavily favored Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro three votes to two. Many critics were outraged, including Boyd Tonkin of The Independent, who described it as “possibly the most perverse decision in the history of the award.”

(11) The Least Controversial

Anne Enright’s The Gathering had sold less than 3,500 copies when it won the 2007 Booker. The more popular On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was expected to win, but proved to be divisive among the committee members. The Gathering, which had odds of only 12 to 1 to win, was seen as the least controversial of the shortlisted books, but far from the best.

(12) The Lone Scot

James Kelman became the only Scotsman to ever win the Booker in 1994 for his stream-of-consciousness novel How Late It Was, How Late. The decision was not without controversy, however. Rabbi Julia Neuberger, a judge on the panel, threatened to resign from the panel if it won. It did, and she declared the decision “crap.”