Dishing the Dirt: Man Booker Prize Scandals

man-booker-prize-2014_0It is the year 2014.  The Earth is a dystopian disaster.  The planet has been destroyed  by fossil fuel wars, the internet has wrecked the human attention span, the food is genetically engineered…  and now the Man Booker Prize judges have selected only three women’s books for the longlist.

The three are:  Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (which I loved), Siri Hustedt’s The Blazing World, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.

There are four male judges and two female judges, but since I’ve never heard of any of them, I’m going to pass on judging judges.

But the numbers suggest we’re back in the world of 1959, when Norman Mailer wrote in Advertisements for Myself:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict maybe taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure—that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.

All right, Norman.  That’s just boyish hi-jinks.

But let me not pretend that women writers/judges are better than men.  Some are, some are not.   In  an article published last year in The Daily Beast“The 12 Biggest Booker Controversies,” I learned about some fascinating Booker scandals.

In 1993, after Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting made the longlist, two women judges said “their feminist sensibilities were offended” and they would resign if the book made the shortlist.

Carmen Calil, founder of Virago Books, always gets attention.  According to The Daily Beast,

“Hours after Arundhati Roy won the prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things, author Carmen Callil—the chair of the previous year’s committee—criticized the book on the BBC as “execrable,” saying it never should have even made the shortlist.”

Calil is clearly an important figure in British publishing, but she also ran to the press in 2011 after Philip Roth won the International Man Booker Prize. She said she resigned from the panel of judges after the two male judges chose Roth.  I still don’t understand how the prize could have been awarded without a consensus among three judges.

Then there is A. L. Kennedy, who was a Booker judge in 1996. According to The Daily Beast, she said in 2001  the Booker was  “a pile of crooked nonsense,”and that it was decided by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”

( A. L. really needs to read pop fiction.  Most of us discovered how the world worked by reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Judith Krantz’s Scruples.)

The last scandal occurred in 2011 when Dame Stella Rimington, the chair of the judges, said they were looking for “readability.”  It’s not that we DIDN’T want a readable book, but most of us were looking for the next A. S. Byatt, not the next Rosamund Pilcher.

The judges this year, about whom I know nothing, are: AC Grayling, a philosopher and this year’s cahir; Jonathan Bate, Oxford Professor of English Literature and biographer; Sarah Churchwell, UEA’s Professor of American Literature; Dr Daniel Glaser, neuroscientist and cultural commentator; Dr Alastair Niven, former Director of Literature at the British Council and at the Arts Council; and Erica Wagner, journalist and writer.

Good luck, break a leg, and all is forgiven if the award goes to an interesting book….by a man or a woman.

5 thoughts on “Dishing the Dirt: Man Booker Prize Scandals

  1. Thanks for the reminder of why I’m so glad to live in a Mailer-less world. I used to hear him on the radio occasionally (although still too often), usually talking about how great he and a few select male writers of his generation were. I hope that in a few years he will be a curious literary footnote of an era.


  2. Perhaps Erica Wagner and Jonathan Bate can find common ground in their dealings with the Ted Hughes estate – have you seen the recent Guardian article about Bate’s biography, and the rather aggrieved response from the estate?

    All these literary controversies are fun to read about, and the Booker judges usually give good value for money in that regard. It’s a far cry from the 1981 awards, when Selina Scott famously didn’t recognise Angela Carter as one of the judges, and asked her if she had read the winning book!


  3. Liz, Mailer was outrageous! I do remember seeing him on late-night TV as a kid and I was astonished by his views on women. He’s a very good writer, and even Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem supported his leftist politcal views, but obviously they hated what he said about women. I must admit I’ve never read anything by him but Advertisements for Myself (very well-written, but too macho for me.). And I wonder if now he would express himself like that now about women! (One of my fave writers, Jonathan Lethem, loves Mailer’s Ads for Myself, so perhaps I should give it a second look, but not just now.)

    Cathereine, I wasn’t familiar with either of these judges’ works, so thanks for the info. What a horror to spend years writing a literary biography and then lose permission to quote. Very confusing: I would have thought manuscripts & letters in the British Library was open game. I am very fond of Plath; in the U.S. we all read her, but Ted Hughes is read much less here.


  4. I’ve recently ordered a copy of Tracy Brain’s The Other Sylvia Plath, which sounds like a fascinating new approach – away from the biographical back to the texts, including her annotations, scrapbooks, and typescripts – and am really looking forward to reading it. If you you’re still curious about the Booker judges, Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare is a nice read. As for the longlist, I’m most excited about the new David Mitchell novel. He’s going to be at a literary festival in Dublin next month, so hope to get to see him there!


  5. I do agree that Mitchell’s book looks good. In fact, I think it’s a good list. Ah, a literary festival in Dublin. How nice. (I tried to persuade my husband that he would like to go to a literary festival on vacation, and the answer is No.)


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