Photo by Ulf Andersen

Bad bets by the Booker

In 2021, is the state of the Booker still “not serious stuff”?

Artillery Row

Fifty years ago, Saul Bellow agreed to be a Booker Prize judge. He joined a panel made up of Antonia Fraser, the critic Philip Toynbee, John Fowles and John Gross, a literary journalist and English don. The Booker winner that year was VS Naipaul, for In A Free State.

Antonia Fraser and John Gross wanted Elizabeth Taylor to win for her novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Taylor was a prolific writer, the author of twelve novels and eight short story collections. Almost fifty years after her death, I couldn’t name one of these twenty books. As Gross later recalled, it was Bellow who “pretty much blew her out of the water. He said when the first round came … ‘This is an elegant tinkling teacup novel of the kind that you Brits do very well, but it’s not serious stuff.’” Bellow stood his ground against the panel. Gross described the scene: “Bellow stood out. He was vivid. He seemed almost a Technicolor personality, where other people were in black-and-white.”

Naipaul, one of the greatest writers of the post-war period, won, but only because of Bellow. It was the only time he ever won the Booker. He was only shortlisted one other time, in 1979, but an even more second-rate panel than in 1971 chose Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore instead. It is worth pointing out that Naipaul was the only writer of colour to win the Booker till Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981, which began the post-colonial revolution in Britain.

Sometimes it’s a problem with genre

Other fine writers didn’t have a great writer and critic like Bellow in their corner. Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter never won the Booker. Nor did William Boyd or Martin Amis. Zadie Smith was never even shortlisted. Sebald, perhaps the greatest British-based writer of the last fifty years, didn’t win either. Never came close. Great novels like Flaubert’s Parrot, Money and A Month in the Country never won. Of course, if only by the law of averages, some very good writers have won the Booker, even if for the wrong book.  Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question won but The Mighty Walzer and Coming from Behind didn’t; Julian Barnes won for The Sense of an Ending but not for Flaubert’s Parrot; Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam won but Atonement didn’t; Time’s Arrow was shortlisted but Money and London Fields were not.

How can we account for these weird anomalies and omissions? Sometimes it’s just personal. Martin Amis will never win the Booker, just as Roth never won the Nobel Prize. Sometimes it’s a problem with genre. Comic novels don’t win the Booker, which is why Howard Jacobson’s best novels got overlooked (ditto Amis and David Lodge).

Bellow got it right. Booker panels have a thing for the “elegant tinkling teacup novel of the kind that you Brits do very well”.  Writers of colour have, at last, broken through. Jews not so much. Four Jewish winners in over half a century and only one (Howard Jacobson) in the last thirty-seven years. No recognition for Alan Isler’s wonderful The Prince of West End Avenue; Dannie Abse’s underrated The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds & Dr Glas; no prizes for Sebald, Deborah Levy and Linda Grant.

The dull men of Stockholm hated all that sex and humour

The real problem is obvious. The panels are too middlebrow. When you get Bellow, George Steiner and AS Byatt, you get winners like Naipaul, John Berger and Nadine Gordimer. In 1984, the year Flaubert’s Parrot and Money didn’t win, the panel included Polly Devlin and Baron Rowlands. Past panellists have included Joanna Lumley, Kate Derham, Trevor McDonald, Kate Saunders, Mary Wilson (the Prime Minister’s wife), Mariella Frostrup, Kenneth Baker, Sue Perkins, Dame Stella Rimington… The list goes on. Until recently the panels have not included many people of colour, many distinguished writers or the best publishers.

Of course, the crimes and misdemeanours of the Booker are nothing compared with the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of the best parts of Blake Bailey’s recent biography of Philip Roth is the running story about how Roth never won the Nobel Prize. Of course, it was personal. The dull men of Stockholm hated all that sex and humour and took the allegations of misogyny more seriously than the rave reviews by great writers like Bellow and Cynthia Ozick. When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize, Roth said, “It’s okay, but next year I hope Peter, Paul and Mary get it.” Ozick wrote of American Pastoral, “They should stop fiddling in Stockholm already and make the telephone call.”

When Roth died, the BBC called him “arguably the best writer not to have won the Nobel Prize since Tolstoy”. Roth was in excellent company. Zola, Ibsen and Mark Twain, Graham Greene and Nabokov were all overlooked. So were Joyce, Auden and Borges. In 1974 Greene, Nabokov and Bellow were believed to be likely candidates for the prize but the Academy decided on a joint award for Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, both members of the Swedish Academy at the time.

The Booker used to be Britain’s premier literary prize

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist is striking for three things. First, three of the writers on the shortlist are American-born, and one was born in Sri Lanka but now lives in America. This is interesting for a prize which is now open to American writers but has resolutely ignored some of the best American writers of the last twenty years: Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer (all Jews). Second, after years of neglecting writers of colour, the Booker is now making up for past misdeeds. This year’s shortlist includes one writer from Sri Lanka and another from Somaliland (and a third post-colonial writer, a white writer from South Africa).  Third, the panel is made up of a journalist, an actor, a Nigerian writer, a former Archbishop and an American historian of empire. One writer, previously shortlisted twice; no publishers, literary biographers or academic literary critics. No Bellows, no Steiners, no Cyril Connollys, no John Careys (all past judges), no AS Byatts, Elizabeth Bowens or Hermione Lees.

You could say, no tinkling teacup novels. Instead, we have novels about the Sri Lankan civil war, a family saga set in South Africa, the story of a Somali man wrongly hanged in a miscarriage of justice and the environmental crisis. Big issues, difficult times.

But you could also say three Americans and three post-colonial writers, one based in the UK. The Booker used to be Britain’s premier literary prize. It was the one all British writers aspired to, and many of the best British writers over the last half century won it.

This year’s shortlist sums up not just the terrible state of the Booker but also the parlous state of British literary culture. American and post-colonial writers (i.e., writers of colour) come first. The Booker panel decided there wasn’t a single novel by a British-born writer that was worthy of their consideration. Not one. What does this say about the state of British writing?

Fifty years ago, the Booker could invite Saul Bellow to be a judge and awarded the prize to VS Naipaul. In 2021, that all seems a terribly long time ago.

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