Saturday, 29 March 2008

Booker of all Bookers

How well-known is the Booker Prize outside of England?

The Man Booker Prize -- usually just referred to as the "Booker" -- was first awarded in 1969 (which makes it roughly the same age of me). Although there are quite a few literary prizes, the Booker is probably the most prestigious. There is no doubt that making the short-list -- not to mention winning it -- will sell books and generate lots of interest in an author. The catch, though, is the criteria: it is given to the best full-length novel written in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. While the italicized criterion covers most of the English-speaking world, it leaves out the literary output of one notable, glaring exception -- the United States of America. Since most of my "readers" (bless you, dear ones) are American, I'm just wondering if the Booker phenomenon is known to you. Yes, "we've" got Pulitzer prizes, and Oprah's Book Club, and even the Nobel Prize . . . but I'm going to venture out on a limb (don't I love limb-venturing) and say that there is no literary prize in America that functions as an equivalent to the Booker. People, even not so literary ones, actually talk about the Booker. (Hmmmm . . . questioning this statement . . . not sure if Bee actually knows any wholly-unliterary or aliterary or otherwise illiterate people. But for our purposes!)

Not so long ago, there was a flutter of journalistic interest in what is being called "the Booker of all Bookers." Even as we speak, there is a distinguished panel of judges slogging through the 200 or so Booker winners and short-listers and they are reading and rereading towards the goal of producing the definitive Booker shortlist. Sometime in May, they will announce the 5 or so best Bookers -- and then the public will get involved and will actually be allowed to participate in voting for the BEST of all of the Bookers. Implicit (and perhaps explicit) in this judgment is that the best Booker will be the best novel published in the last 40 years. Excepting all of the great American novels, of course.

It is interesting to visit Wikipedia and view all of the past winners and also-ran short-listers. I did a quick survey this morning and discovered that I have read 10 winners, 10 more short-listers, and own at least 10 others. Since there are approximately 200 books in total -- there are usually 5 books on the list, but occasionally there have been 6 -- that means I have read only 10% of the contemporary English novels considered the best, the most wonderful and worthy, the most literary. How pathetic!

In order to address this frightful ignorance, I am proposing a BOOKER BOOK CLUB CHALLENGE. Is anybody with me?

Here's how I see it working . . . but if you want to "play," then you are welcome to amend the rules. I think we should all set ourselves reading goals. Everyone's reading goal can vary according to the time/interest they feel they can devote to the project. In other words, I may decide to read five books; but you, who perhaps work full-time, may feel that only one or two is possible. You might even feel that just buying a book (and resolving to read it SOMEDAY) or even reading this post will suffice as participation. It makes no matter to me. But I do think we should have some kind of "pool" -- just to introduce the galvanizing competitive aspect.

So when they announce the short-list, I think we should all publicly "vote" for our choice for Best Ever Booker. Some of us may be doing this voting quite randomly, as we might not be so well-acquainted with the books in question. Never mind; I know nothing about football and horse-racing, but that wouldn't stop me from playing a pool. Anyway, gambling has always had the chance quality.

The PRIZE: If YOU are the eventual winner, I will happily mail you the Booker book of your choice. (It doesn't have to be the winning Booker.) I am willing to award multiple prizes, should the need (doubtful) arise. If none of us are canny enough to guess the winner, I reserve the right to pick a winner based on my own subjective judgment of your PARTICIPATION. As with anything, I actually believe that participating counts for more than winning. Really.

Although I know that you are all competent googlers, I am providing you with a handy link to the official Booker website. Just to be absolutely fair -- to those of you who don't have ready access to the British press -- I will freely offer the bookies' choices.

Bookmakers William Hill has listed Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as favourite to win the Best of the Booker at odds of 4/1. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children runs a close second at 5/1 and Ondaatje’s English Patient just behind that at 7/1.
Ladbrokes has Salman Rushdie in the lead with Midnight’s Children at 4/1, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient at 6/1 and in joint third Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin at 7/1.

Now, for my own reading schedule: I have set themself the goal of reading the following Booker winners by May.

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
Life of Pi, Jann Martel
Life and Times of Michael K., J. M. Coetzee
Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

My thought process: The Coetzee books are pretty short, and I've been given serious personal recommendations for them. I already own the Margaret Atwood and the Martel -- which I've started at least once; and Midnight's Children was the 25 year winner in 1993. Also, I've never read any Rushdie -- which is shameful for any book lover of some pretension (pretentiousness?).

What other people think: A recent Guardian Review article featured the choices of 10 English authors. They chose: Life of Pi, The Remains of the Day, In a Free State, The Ghost Road, Oscar and Lucinda, The Sea, Midnight's Children, The English Patient, Rites of Passage, Possession and Disgrace -- either as should-wins or will-wins.
Including the books I plan on reading, I will have managed to cover 8 of those -- so I feel that I can have my say as much as the next English-speaking reader.

I plan on carrying out my own little Booker Challenge, even if I have to do it by my sad-lonesome . . . but it would be a lot more fun if I had some fellow participants. So is anyone interested?


Brave Sir Robin said...

I only have a moment, but of course I'm interested, and yes, I follow the booker each year,

I find it hysterical that one can place a wager on the outcome.

I'll follow up in a bit.

Count me in.

Bad Bunni said...

I'm interested as well even though I have no free time as my french classes begin this week and I'm behind on grading.

Bee said...

BSR and Bunni,

I'm looking forward to hearing what you decide to take on -- even though I know that neither of you has a lot of free time.

I'm taking "Disgrace" with me on my trip . . . I started it last night.

BSR, I finished "The Lovely Bones" -- and what a wonderful book. I will write more about it at some future date.

heartsease said...

Ok since I'm older and British I guess I too should participate, and since I've read 25 of the winners my list will be shorter. But being British, and hence inherently cynical I want to say that we all know the best one won't win, so could we have 2 categories 1)the one "they" will choose, and 2) the one we think should win. (We could also have a category for "Good grief - why did they choose that one!)

Lucy said...

This looks interesting... I'm rushing through at the moment, but it might be good to have some reading goals; I'll come back to it. Have a good time away!

Bee said...


You are the Booker Goddess! 25 winners!

We will definitely have both a "will win" and a "should win" category . . . but you only get a prize for the first category!


Come back when you have more time! I am going to try and check in -- from Texas -- but my computer time will be scarce.

Anonymous said...

I'm pleased to find out that I have read a few of the nominees and a whopping three of the past winners. I hope you enjoy Midnight's Children, Bee. I found it disorienting at points but wonderful in total. It is my current favorite book.

Just last night I realized that I didn't have a novel to read. So I'll give it a try. Maybe I can finish three books? I'll stay tuned...

maurinsky said...

I feel woefully inadequate, as I've only read five of the nominees in the 39 years the contest has existed.

I first found out about The Booker Prize when Roddy Doyle won for Paddy Clark, Ha, Ha, Ha, because I'm a huge fan of his work.

I will commit to reading one book, and I haven't decided which one, yet.

Side note: bad bunni - do you teach French?

Anne said...

I've also only read five of the nominees. Sigh. I have so much reading to do! I'd love to join the challenge but will wait to post my books so that I can think on what my commitment will be.

Great idea, Bee!

Brave Sir Robin said...

My "have read" is Embarrassingly short. (4)

I will somehow manage to read the following by the end of May.

Cloud Atlas (It was already on my list)
Blind Assassin (I love Atwood)
Atonement (also already on my list)
And one other, I'm open for suggestions.

When the short list comes out, lets try very hard to read them all.

Bee said...


Today I was in a Barnes and Noble in Austin and I looked for Midnight's Children -- but no luck. They also didn't have any Hanif Kureshi -- who I am dying to read after reading a fascinating article about him on the plane. Have you decided which three you are going for?


Oh, please join us! Funnily enough, I really remember Roddy Doyle winning that year as well. That reminds me of how much I love "The Commitments." Is your family Irish? (I'm guessing, as you have beautiful red hair.)


My life is a constant story of what I haven't read and what I want to read! I can't wait to see what you will pick! I can recommend Coetzee for brevity -- although it is not "light reading" from an emotional point of view.


Yes, we will definitely tackle that short list together -- in addition to "Birthday Letters." It is supposed to come out sometime in May. I think your "picks" are really good ones -- especially since they already jibe with books that have been taunting you from your own personal to-read shelf.

Anne said...

Sadly, I don't feel that I can commit to reading more than two in the next month--maybe three if I am very diligent, or if the shortlist is announced later in May.

The Blind Assassin
The English Patient
If I have time, I'll add The Life of Pi.

Happy reading, everyone!

Bee said...


Good choices! "The English Patient" is such a good one; it really is one of my favorites.

You and BSR and I should try reading "Blind Assassin" in tandem.

Bitty said...

Yes, I've been familiar with the Booker for some time, primarily due to Margaret Atwood's frequent appearances on its short lists. Also, my best friend is cousin to 2005's winner, John Banville (although they're not close).

Regarding the challenge: It depends. Must I be finished by the end of May or do I have the entire month? My current workload is staggering.

I've started Atonement, but found it slow going. I was only beginning to warm up to it when I ran out of reading time.

I'll commit to reading The Blind Assassin, since Atwood is one of the gods in my personal pantheon, but I'll do it for love, not reward, as I'm likely not to finish quickly.

Another of my pantheon's gods is Kazuo Ishiguro, and Remains of the Day is one of my very favorite books, so if I get through Assassin, I'll move on to Never Let Me Go. (He is also author of one of the most perfectly crafted short stories ever, "A Family Supper.")

(I stopped to do a quick search and accidentally stumbled on this conflation of the two: A review of Never by Atwood. Synchronicity. I only skimmed it, because I fear it tells me more than I want to know about the plot right now.)

Time to go shopping for these two books, which I had intended to buy someday anyway. I knew when I applied for that Amazon credit card there'd be trouble. ;)

Bitty said...

I meant to say "do I have to be finished by the beginning of May?". What I wrote made no sense. Isn't this much like other awards, where there's no set date for the announcement.

Bee said...


Welcome! This is the most inclusive, easygoing "book club" you will ever be a part of.

They are supposed to announce the Booker short list sometime in May. When that comes out, I propose we vote on what we think should/will win. I plan on reading all of the short list -- if I haven't already done so -- plus I want to read the five others (all tipped to be in the running), because they are books that I've meant to read for awhile. You can participate in any way that you are able. . . but a few of us want to read "The Blind Assassin" -- so that seems like a good place to start.

BTW, Atwood is one of my goddesses, too! She came to my University in 1989 and I was invited to a small cocktail party to meet her! She was very dignified, and her merest utterance seemed incredibly clever. Sadly, I was rather tongue-tied -- but I treasure the memory!

Audrey said...

Not to split hairs, Bee, but the National Book Award functions as the American equivalent of the Booker. I think that "Sacred Hunger" is a stunning book. Has anyone read it?

Bee said...

Point taken, Audrey!

But do you think the National Book Award gets books talked about in the same way that the Booker does?

Again, this may be a "small island" -- plus everyone gets the same same newspapers -- issue.

I, for one, haven't read "Sacred Hunger."

k said...

i'm totally into this!

my yank self has heard of the booker. but i didn't know it was THAT prestigious.

i thought atwood was canadian? is that part of the "commonwealth"? am i an idiot?

thanks for the link- i own life of pi, blind assassin, & god of small things- but haven't read them. i think i'll plan to read. though, some of them that i've never even heard of. (this is so shameful since i used to run a bookstore!) i think i'll just reserve a bunch from the library and whatever 2 (that seems like a number i can handle) comes in first i'll read.

ooh- fun!

ps/ the only ones i've read are possession & english patient- snoozers both, imo! :)

Bee said...


Yes, Atwood is a Canadian and just managed to slip under the old Commonwealth flag. No, you're not an idiot -- you're an American! Not knowing this kind of thing is our arrogant birthright!

I'm about to launch a Blind Assassin reading . . . there are several of us planning on reading that one. Want to join us?

My review of "Disgrace" will appear soonish . . .

BTW, I LOVED "The English Patient" and "Possession" -- but I will admit to skimming some of the Victorian poetry bits in the latter. I liked the sexy bits a lot better.