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The Man Booker Prize, a “World Federation Wrestling Match” for Bookworms and Bookies

disgrace.gifFor those who credit the Booker Prize’s success to its fly-to-shit relationship with controversy, the appointment of John Sutherland to this year’s judging panel can leave no room for doubts. Here, a short timeline of Sutherland’s most controversial Booker moments:

Jan. 21, 2005: The Guardian reports that “members of the hallowed Man Booker advisory committee … are spitting blood at the appointment of John Sutherland to chair the award panel this year.” Called an “appalling choice” by an anonymous committee member, Sutherland previously judged the Prize in 1999, during which time he published numerous “indiscreet” articles about the judging process. According to some, Sutherland turned the Prize “into a circus,” irrevocably “diminishing” the Booker’s stature. 1999 co-judge Boyd Tonkin sums up the sour feelings in the Independent, where he intones that
“Sutherland, an inaccurate and impenitent leaker of our panel discussions, has been rewarded for his imprecisions by elevation to the chairman’s role.”

The Guardian article, meanwhile, continues:

Asked if Prof Sutherland was a potential liability, [Man Booker administrator Martin Goff] said: “That’s the very word I have used to him tonight. I have laid down certain rules.”

But he said Prof Sutherland was a “brilliant man”, adding: “Have you seen his CV?”

Jan. 20, 2005: Sutherland sounds the bell for the 2005 Booker Prize publicity thump-down, announcing — as the Guardian reports — “that the judges are unlikely to read all 130 books in contention” and that his fellow judges are “light on the minorities.” Sutherland goes on to liken the judging process to a “world federation wrestling match.” No one asks if the simile is meant to emphasize not just the likelihood of literary feuding, but the likelihood of those feuds being staged.
The Scotsman, in a later report, says “[Sutherland's] comments provide the Man Booker with its first whiff of controversy of the year.”

Oct. 26, 1999: Sutherland, writing in the Guardian, calls the judges’ choice of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace the “quietest (most boring, some would say) Booker for some years.” In later articles, Sutherland’s fellow judges object to Sutherland’s description of Coetzee’s win as an uninpired compromise — an observation which prompted Sutherland (again, in his Oct. 26 Guardian piece) to denounce the Booker Prize as “a lottery, not a literary competition.”

Sep. 22, 1999: Sutherland, having made the Guardian his public diary, comments at length on the Booker’s loving relationship to controversy. “… After the winner is announced, will come ‘The Scandal,’” he writes. “If it doesn’t come, someone will confect it. All in the good cause of clearing 50,000 copies of a hardback novel and getting quality fiction into headlines.” He then proceeds to concoct imaginary scandals for each of the nominees (with the exception, however, of Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love, Sutherland’s stated favorite).

Sep. 5, 1999: Commenting on a supposed leak of the Booker longlist, Guardian lit editor Robert McCrum observes that,

Over the years, Goff has proved a master of press management. I think he long ago realised that while the British reading public didn’t give two hoots for literary prizes, it was fascinated (if that’s not too strong a word) with bookish feuds.

Sep. 2, 1999: Sutherland, again writing for the Guardian, denies having been the Booker snitch. Nonetheless, the professor notes that “publicity, even bad publicity, is good for the Booker.”

What kills prizes is indifference. Can you name one James Tait Black winner? It’s the most venerable fiction prize in Britain. It is run, from Edinburgh University, with exemplary discretion and intellectual scrupulousness. And the prize does sweet Fanny Adams for the sale of books.

So there you have it: the play-by-play behind-the-scenes instruction manual for rigging Booker “scandals.” (Just remember that, as Roland Barthes said about wrestling: “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.”)

Further Reading:

  • “Booker chairman ‘gags himself’ until winner is named,” the Telegraph, Jan. 22, 2005
  • “Backstage at the Booker: Publishers bicker, judges complain, sponsors waver,” Salon, Oct. 28, 1999
  • “Judges snipe in Booker war of words,” The Guardian, Oct. 27, 1999
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