Overbooked

Lost for Words

by Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 261 pp., $26.00

There are book prizes, and then there is the Booker Prize, known, fondly, as the Booker, or, furiously, by a close homonym. In fact, “Booker Prize” is as much a nickname as “the Booker.” Properly, it was first the Booker-McConnell Prize, after its sponsor company, an international food conglomerate with a long and not entirely unshadowed colonial history. Since 2002, when the Man Group took over sponsorship, it has been the Man Booker Prize, a rather awkward renaming that the poor old—or, rather, rich old—Man Group has tried to establish firmly in the public consciousness, with not much success. The Booker remains the Booker.

The prize was established in 1969, although the novels considered had been published the previous year. Its stated aim was annually to find the best work of fiction written in English by a writer from the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland. The first winner was P.H. Newby, for his novel Something to Answer For. Newby wasn’t the most obvious choice—Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark were on the shortlist—and in subsequent years many more of the jury’s decisions have left readers, publishers, and booksellers scratching their heads in bemusement.

In the early days the prize was a staid affair, judged by such eminent figures as Stephen Spender, Rebecca West, Frank Kermode, Philip Toynbee, and Antonia Fraser. Few outside the world of books took much notice of it. There was a flurry of media interest when in 1972 John Berger, who won for his novel G., announced that, in protest against what he saw as Booker-McConnell’s many years of exploitation of sugar cane workers in the Caribbean, he would be donating half of his £5,000 award money to the Black Panthers. It was a colorful gesture, though some of the color was drained out of it by the question whispered abroad as to why Berger had thought to donate only half of the money: if you are going to make a point, best make the whole point.

It was not until 1980 that the Booker established itself as the world’s most famous, after the Nobel, and consequently most lucrative, fiction prize. In that year Anthony Burgess (Earthly Powers), who had warned the organizers that he would not attend the award ceremony unless it was confirmed beforehand that he had won, flew into a rage when the prize went to William Golding (Rites of Passage). Burgess, ever the literary roughhouser, told journalists that Golding’s book wasn’t a patch on his own, and the story made the front pages. Suddenly it dawned on media folk that the Booker was copy, and since the Burgess–Golding bout, hardly an autumn has passed without its Booker “story.”

The fun got even finer when the awards ceremony began to be televised live, allowing gloating audiences at home to feed their fill on the spectacle of evening-dressed authors, with their agents and publishers, sweating under the arc …

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