To mark 50 years of the prize, the Man Booker Prize Foundation recently announced a one-off “golden” prize, placing the backlist of winners in a battle of the best—and bookish social media in a battle of its own.
Five judges—Robert McCrum, Lemn Sissay, Kamila Shamsie, Simon Mayo and Hollie McNish—have been appointed for the mammoth task and assigned a decade each, from the 1970s-2010s, to evaluate. The idea is to pick a winner amongst the winning books of a decade, resulting in a “Golden Five” shortlist (scheduled to be announced at the 2018 edition of the Hay Festival on 26 May). The shortlist will be subjected to a month-long public vote and the crème de la crème will be celebrated at the close of the Man Booker 50 festival (6-8 July, at London’s Southbank Centre).
“The Golden Man Booker will put all 51 winners—which are all still in print—back under the spotlight, to discover which of them has stood the test of time, remaining relevant to readers today,” says the press release. Indeed, in both their comments, Helena Kennedy (chair of the Booker Prize Foundation) and Luke Ellis (CEO of the Man Group) use words such as “endure”, “relevant” and “resonant”. With a time span that covers half a century, one that has witnessed substantial changes in literary prizes—including the Booker’s own trajectory—the question arises: How can one compare a 1969 winning book to a 2017 one and judge them both on the same criteria of “finest fiction”? While it’s easy to discern whether a winner from the 1970s, or even the 1980s, has “stood the test of time”, one can argue that fiction in the new millennium may be too nascent to be judged by the same yardstick.
Who, then, will be named the winner—the one who takes it all? The Guardianreported that “Salman Rushdie, who won the prize in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, is likely a favourite to win, having already won the Best of Booker award in 2008, to mark the prize’s 40th anniversary, and the Booker of Bookers in 1993, for its 25th birthday”. Literary scholar Stevie Marsden took to Twitter to express her frustration at the Booker’s tendency to re-reward titles: “Does it feel like they’re running out of ways to say ‘the best book’?” and “They’re just continuing a sycophantic cycle of a select canon. It’s boring. And I bet Midnight’s Children wins again.” And if the odds are against Rushdie, will one among the four double-winners of the Booker—J.G. Farrell (1970 and 1973), J.M. Coetzee (1983 and 1999), Peter Carey (1988 and 2001), and Hilary Mantel (2009 and 2012)—receive the crowning glory?
Already, Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, has cheekily called The Golden Man Booker Prize “the priziest prize”. If the Booker awards the “finest fiction” annually, can it supersede its own superlative? We’ll be keeping our eyes trained.