A year spent judging the Man Booker Prize

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona reflects on the time he judged one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes, triggered by the announcement of this year's shortlist

20 September 2018 15:11

I am not sure how a clinical psychologist would characterise a frisson that feels halfway between a pleasant, almost Proustian memory of past pleasure, and a Vietnam flashback. Anyway, that is exactly what I experienced this morning when the Man Booker prize shortlist was announced. I was, you see, a judge myself in 2011 – of which more shortly.

As ever, this year’s selection of six works of fiction has already generated plenty of heat, as well as a reasonable amount of light. The inclusion of Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson, is fizzing across social media, not least because its author, at 27, is the youngest ever to earn this distinction.

I am delighted to see Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black on the list: an extraordinary tale of a child slave based on a true story. Robin Robertson’s The Long Take about a D-Day veteran is the first verse novel to make it this far in the Booker steeplechase. Also on the list are Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and Milkman by Anna Burns.

And well done to all of them. To be a Booker-shortlisted author is a career-changing accolade, and each will be regarded differently henceforth by publishers, booksellers and readers. It is one of the necessary fictions of all creativity that prizes do not really matter. But – since authors have bills to pay and (however privately) care deeply about the way in which their work is received – they do. Last year’s winner, Lincoln In The Bardo, by George Saunders, sold close to a quarter of a million copies, most of them after his victory.

Yet it is intrinsic to the annual Booker Prize arc – from nomination of judges to the night on which the winner is announced – that as much noise is generated by the titles that are excluded from the longlist and shortlist, as by the books that survive each successive round of the Darwinian process.

Hence, the acclaim today for those who have made it to the final hurdle is matched by fury that Sally Rooney’s Normal People is not among the final six, and that Michael Ondaatje, whose masterpiece The English Patient shared the award with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger in 1992, will not have the chance to win again with Warlight. There is digital grumbling, too, that Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel, Sabrina, the first of the genre to appear on the longlist, has not made the cut.

To be a Booker-shortlisted author is a career-changing accolade, and each will be regarded differently henceforth by publishers, booksellers and readers.

I have deep admiration for every single author whose book was entered and has felt the prickle of Booker judgment upon his or her nape, however fleetingly. Having published three thrillers myself, I have at least an inkling of what the writers of genuinely literary fiction go through: it is not the same as non-fiction writing, which has its own neuroses. The novel, in whatever form, is not always a work of autobiography; but it is always, to a greater or lesser extent, a disclosure of the author’s soul. It can be the most exhilarating experience available to a writer. But it involves epic vulnerabilities.

It may seem indecorous, therefore, if I say that my sympathies lie today with the judges: Kwame Anthony Appiah, the chair; crime writer Val McDermid; the critic Leo Robson; the feminist writer Jacqueline Rose; and the artist and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton. They will be feeling a bewildering combination of pride, relief, guilt and the first premonition of literary PTSD (the worst is yet to come).

In 2011, I was, as they say, ‘tapped’ to be a judge by the late, great Ion Trewin, who oversaw the prize in those days and was a gently leonine custodian of its values and prestige.

The chair that year was Dame Stella Rimington, the former chief of MI5, whom I knew and liked already. My fellow judges would be Susan Hill, the acclaimed novelist; Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and minister, familiar to me from the Westminster beat; and Gaby Wood, head of books at the Daily Telegraph and a truly brilliant literary journalist (who has since succeeded Ion as the literary director of the Booker Prize foundation).

‘It’ll be a bit of work, old boy,’ said Ion through his beard, beaming in the way that only he could – a mischievous smile with which, as an author lucky enough to have been edited by him when he was at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, I was all too familiar. A bit of work? No bloody kidding.

The months that followed were a blur of texts, proof copies and argument – most of it civil, some of it a little more pointed. We were all given Kindles to help us read wherever we happened to be – an idea that still seemed fabulously high-tech at the time.

‘It’ll be a bit of work, old boy,’ said Ion through his beard. A bit of work? No bloody kidding.

But the physical books still came. Oh, how they came. Often ten or more at a time. I lined them up on the floor and by the end of the process there were, if memory serves, more than 130 books crawling from my sitting room up the stairs and into the bedroom, like reproachful ants whispering: ‘Read me, read me.’

Reading: such a pleasure, such an essential part of my life. But reading as a Booker judge is a military discipline. You owe it to each and every entrant to read the book properly, to take notes, to reflect. But that eats up time, and lots of it. I made sure that I read for two hours every morning and two hours at night. But that was just to keep me in the game.

I had to set aside half days and sometimes weekends just for reading. It became, after family, the dominant feature of my life. On certain mornings, I noticed that I had what I came to call ‘Booker beard’: the kind of unkempt facial hair that is usually associated with scary evangelicals shouting at tourists by Embankment station.

Not ideal for someone writing four regular columns and trying to maintain at least a modicum of respectability. Was it possible to read oneself to death? Would I be found inert under a pile of debut novels – and would literary editors write this up as ‘another embarrassment for Booker’?

Because the main advice I have always given to subsequent judges when they ask is: don’t expect any gratitude from the literary world. By definition, you are making more enemies than friends. That’s the deal and, really, it’s fair enough.

There were more than 130 books crawling from my sitting room up the stairs and into the bedroom, like reproachful ants whispering: ‘Read me, read me.’

Publishers, agents and authors are going to resent you. Edward St Aubyn, whose final Patrick Melrose novel, At Last, I rather wish had made our shortlist, was so angry that he wrote another work of fiction, Lost for Words, entirely devoted to the feckless and inept judging of a literary award. Yes, that angry.

We got into hot water early on when Chris said he hoped that the novels that were entered would ‘zip along’. He meant no more or less than that they should be readable (scarcely a controversial criterion). But the remark was taken – absurdly – to mean that Booker had arbitrarily dumped its literary heritage and was embracing the values of downmarket fiction. The charge stuck and the controversy grew.

Meanwhile, we were trying to whittle down a small library to a handful of books. Needless to say, the task is, almost literally, impossible. The lone reader’s response to a novel is, by definition, subjective: indeed, that is the whole point. But how do you harmonise five subjective responses to each and every title, and seek to achieve something close to objectivity?

You quote chapter and verse. You try, always, to evaluate the book, not the author or the genre. You strive always to look for innovation and excellence and boldness. You know, constantly, that your reach will exceed your grasp – but that is no excuse to stop trying. The sense of responsibility is keen: the stakes are high, and there is no place for the dilettante round the table.

We were lambasted for not including Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child in our shortlist, and some observers – unfairly, in my view – took exception to the inclusion of A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards in the longlist.

The sense of responsibility is keen: the stakes are high, and there is no place for the dilettante round the table.

The discussions around the table were occasionally vigorous, though never personally aggressive. We came to like each other very much: you are in the literary jungle together, and you have to stand shoulder to shoulder against the literary Vietcong.

Susan was the conscience of the group, Chris its benign provocateur. Gaby, it seemed to me, was always right. Stella had been the nation’s top domestic spook, and the inspiration, it was said, for Judi Dench’s M. But this was really dangerous work. I thought she was terrific.

Our final meeting was held at the Garrick Club in conditions of great secrecy. We were proud of our shortlist and, looking back, I still am. In another year, Carol Birch’s extraordinary tale of magical exploration on the high seas, Jamrach’s Menagerie, might have nosed it.

I retain a huge affection for Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English which described the death of a young boy on a London estate and the subsequent detective work of Harrison Opoku, an 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant.

In the end, we awarded the 2011 Booker Prize to Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, a haunting tale of lost love and the elegy of ageing. I read it four times during the judging process and have read it twice since. It is a masterpiece of the novella form and will be looked upon kindly by posterity.

On the night of the award, before Stella announced the winner, a well-known politician cornered me and insisted that he knew which book had been chosen. He named a book – the wrong one, as it happened. I kept my counsel, for obvious reasons. ‘I know, you see,’ he said, tapping his nose, full of claretty confidence. I wanted to say: no, mate, you absolutely don’t. But I preserved my best poker face, conscious that I only had to observe Booker purdah for a short while longer.

Madness, really. It pretty much wrote off a year. It crippled my social life. Along with my fellow judges, I was subjected to furious public criticism. Would I do it again? Would I go through all that again?

In a heartbeat.

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