Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Three (or four?) Phases of Booker

The Booker Prize began in 1969, so to celebrate its 40th anniversary, a new prize was announced a couple of weeks ago, a 2nd running of their Booker of Bookers. 2008 is the 40th Booker (but won't be eligible I guess), whilst 2 joint winners mean there are forty one books in contention. I've got the list of winners and shortlists here, and I think the Booker's had 3 distinct phases. The first, from 1969-1979, when, as far as I can gather (I was far too young), it didn't gain much notoriety, and the books that won it were worthy, earnest, quiet novels, albeit with the occasional jolt (John Berger's pro-Black Panther gesture for instance.) Of the winners I'd guess that only Naipaul's "In a Free State" and Murdoch's "The Sea, the Sea" are still read. Mostly the lists were made up of those midlist, midcareer novelists that had been writing regularly for a decade or more. The second phase, all agree, began with the title fight between Burgess v. Golding, which the latter won, in 1980, though I guess you could see this as the last gasp of that particular age - established writers, not previously rewarded by the prize, coming up with a couple of late classics. From 1981-1992 has to be the Booker's golden age; a time when the Booker book came into its own, and, more often than not, the judges got it right. "Midnights Children", "Schindler's Ark," "The Life and Times of Michael K", all worthy winners; the next 4 years saw the shortlist triumph, I think, with books by Carey, Lessing, Ishiguro, Ballard, Atwood and Achebe, probably lasting in the memory more than the winners. Yet, from "Oscar and Lucinda" in 1988 to "The English Patient" in 1992, books with some lasting substance all took the prize. The third phase, I think, begins in 1993, when Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" won the prize, proving that any well-written (and popular) book could win with the right set of jurors. Every year since, its been hard to know which way the Booker wind has blown, favouring unrepeatable one offs (Yann Martel, DBC Pierre) or long-service awards (Carey again, Attwood, McEwan). It's not that these books are bad (and Coetzee's "Disgrace" is a modern classic) just that they don't really tell us an awful lot about what's happening to our fiction, and, given the strange "qualification" to be a Booker novel (anyone but an American), the modern stateless novelist (whether it be shortlisted Michael Collins - long resident in America, or DBC Pierre, Australian-Mexican, both of whom wrote essentially American novels), was always in with a chance, given an enterprising publisher. Mind you, it's possible we're now in the fourth phase of Booker - where the last 3 winners, Enright, Desai and Banville, have gone back to the worthy midlists (though Desai's is the start of the career, she's hardly an iconoclast, and another stateless writer), that we saw throughout the seventies. In some ways I think this is the case. It's a devil to know what history will show - but when chapters by Stanley Middleton and V.S. Naipaul were roundly rejected a couple of ago, it goes to show how fashion's change; though I would say, that a literary novel with a wide audience (which is what a Booker winner is likely to be), has got a more than even chance of surviving. My own Booker of Bookers (having read a good number of winners since 1980 at least) would be "The life and times of Michael K" by Coetzee, closely followed by Peter Carey's "Oscar and Lucinda." More interesting, of course, are the books on the shortlist, where,"Illywhacker", "The Handmaid's Tale", "The Good Terrorist," "Earthly Powers," "Utz", "Atonement," "A Long, Long Way" and "Cloud Atlas" would all have been more than worthy winners.

1 comment:

Richard said...

"Of the winners I'd guess that only Naipaul's "In a Free State" and Murdoch's "The Sea, the Sea" are still read."

I'd have thought Gordimer could be added to that list, but I have to admit to never having heard of several of the authors from this period.