40 Years Of The Booker Prize

By Freya McClelland | 11 September 2008
A photograph of a special edition box set of Sarah Water's book Fingersmith including long silk gloves

Specially bound copy of Sarah Water’s Fingersmith by Angela James (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002). Photo James Darling

As the V&A's Booker at 40 exhibition tells the visual story of the world's leading literary prize we take a look at the history of the literary prize which has become the benchmark for all the others.

2008 is the 40th anniversary of The Man Booker Prize, arguably, the most influential and important literary award in the world and certainly the most talked about.

Historically, the debate surrounding winners, and losers, has been explosive and has attracted polarised views both from authors, readers and from the panel of often galvanised judges who have to decide on one winner.

This is a life-changing decision. The winning author walks off with £50,000 prize money and, more importantly, the prestige, publicity and privilege that is attached the award.

After a lengthy build-up in the media, the winner of the competition is met with a frenzy of television, radio and press worldwide. Every year, the Man Booker Prize winner is guaranteed a huge increase in sales, both in hardback and then later in paperback.

A poster featuring the novel The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Specially bound copy of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things by Angela James (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1997). Photo James Darling

The domino effect is a huge increase in worldwide sales of books and future sales with a leverage to get finacially lucrative book deals, publishers baying to get ‘in on the money’. The Booker has become a ‘Golden Ticket’ making the author a household name, a literary heavyweight.

This can be almost overnight as with Kiran Desai author of The Inheritance of Loss which won the prize in 2006. The Booker brings a stability that rarely exists in the precarious position of novelist: no winning book, with the exception of one, has ever been out of print.

Then there is there is a good possibility of Hollywood knocking on the door. 39 Booker Prize winning and shortlisted books have been made into films or are in production. This includes acclaimed films such as Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. More recently there has been Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

But the prize comes from tempestuous beginnings. Forty years ago it was decided that there must be a Literary Award that would advance British fiction, promoting new authors and bring British talent to the world stage.

Colourful stickers advertising The Man Booker Prize

Promotional stickers from various years. Photo James Darling

Something to rival the Prix Goncourt in France, whose very limited prize money was overshadowed by the publicity and increase in sales by at least half- a million. There was nothing in England to rival it. Yet once the team was put together, squabbles ensued almost immediately- what to call the award?

Names such as the Britannia award, the Apollo prize, the Victoria Prize, the Regent Prize and the Bucklersbury Prize were raised and rejected. The Booker was finally decided on, Booker Brothers McConnel, a successful food distribution company, were the orginal sponsers of the award. The Booker Prize for Fiction was first awarded in 1969 but took a few years to pick up pace and print runs were relatively small at this early stage.

Today, as the prize celebrates its 40th anniversary there is more hype and media activity then ever. Judges over the years have been interviewed and have revealed the sometimes bizarre, sometimes violent process of choosing a winner. Colourful anecdotes of Booker Judges have been told from an entirely silent TS Eliot to a amourous Saul Bellow.

A black poster advertising The Man Booker Prize

Booker Prize poster from 1992. Photo James Darling

There have been prize fights and battles of the ego: David Baddiel and Alain de Botton fell out about whether the books were contrived to be ‘serious.’ Alain de Botton said the panel was "a little attention-seeking" to complain about the serious tone of the books, adding that the Booker was "not the WH Smith thumping-good-read award".

Inherent snobbery has oft been a talking point surrounding the prize. There have reports of the scandels over the years as when winner John Berger, critic, New Statesman writer with Marxist principles launched a tirade at the dinner, condemning book awards as glorified horse races and accusing the sponsors, Booker McConnell, of exploiting colonial labour in the West Indian sugar plantations.

There have always been those who have disproved of the Booker: John Le Carre refused to even have his books considered for the prize. And those who have lost out, undeservedly over the years, falling foul of ‘gamemanship,’ personal whims and passing trends. Beryl Bainbridge has been nominated five times (as has Margaret Atwood, the two most nominated) but has never won.

A poster advertising the shortlist of The Man Booker Prize featuring two books

Poster from the Booker Prize in 1990, along with original copies of the two winning titles that year. Photo James Darling

Excitement builds as we await the announcement of the Man Booker winner 2008 and, in the Booker tradition, we can be sure it will not be without contention The public voted literary star Salman Rushdie to be the ‘The Best of the Booker’, but controversially Rushdie's latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence failed to make this year’s shortlist.

The 2008 shortlist includes two first time novelists, Aravind Adiga and Steve Toltz. The six authors represent a broad geographical spread with two Indian authors, two English authors, an Australian author and an Irish author.

The youngest on the list, at 34 years old, is Aravind Adiga. Sebastian Barry was shortlisted in 2005 for his novel, A Long, Long Way, Linda Grant was longlisted in 2002 for her novel Still Here and Philip Hensher, once a Booker judge himself, was also longlisted in 2002 for his novel, The Mulberry Empire.

Out of the six that have been chosen, the decision about a winner will be fought out by this year’s judges and the winner will be announced on Tuesday 14 September 2008.

The exhibition, The Booker at 40 runs at the V&A until May 17 2009.

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