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Britain's best-book fete, today, rivals the US Academy Awards

The Americans have their Pulitzer; the French have the Goncourt. But the British - who, after all, have produced more than a few novels of note in their long history - did not have an equivalent literary prize before which the readers of the nation could genuflect.

And so the Booker prize.

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Tonight (26 october) at a banquet ceremony in London televised live across the nation, an envelope will be opened, and the name of the winner of the 1983 Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction will be named. The television cameras will zoom in on the winner's face; he or she will accept the award amid a cloud of applause and admiration.

This kind of drum-rolling, may-I-have-the-envelope-please suspense, which has long proven a draw at beauty contests and the Academy Awards, is helping to boost serious literature in Britain. As much as the authors it honors, the Booker prize itself has become a success.

''There are an enormous number of literary prizes in the world,'' says Desmond Clarke of Britain's Publishers Association. ''But only three or four are judged to be significant. The Booker has become one of them.''

Clarke says great literary prizes, like great books, have to be made, rather than merely born.

The making of the Booker prize is a story that has many of the ingredients of exciting fiction: suspense, controversy, happy coincidences, and ultimate success.

It began in 1968, when the Publishers Association approached key executives at Booker McConnell, an agriculture and food-distribution company with distant ties to the book world, about establishing a literary prize.

''The idea of the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction was to reward merit, raise the stature of authors in this country, and increase the sales of books,'' Clarke says.

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In a country where such things are not considered established until they have been around at least half a century, it is remarkable that the Booker prize has achieved exactly what the Publishers Association hoped it would in the relatively short time it has existed.

''We have very carefully nurtured it,'' says Martyn Goff, administrator of the prize. ''In the first few years, I felt like I was carrying a begging bowl when I went round trying to gain support for the prize.''

Although the first Booker prize was awarded in 1969, the initial indication that destiny awaited the Booker was in 1978, when well-established British novelist Iris Murdoch won it for her brooding novel, ''The Sea, The Sea.'' A bit of Miss Murdoch's prestige seemed to rub off on the, until then, unshining Booker.

Then three years ago, a public relations dream came true when Anthony Burgess and William Golding appeared among the finalists. Golding (whose reputation was recently reaffirmed when he won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature) won it for ''Rites of Passage,'' but not until much had been made in the press of how two of the greats of British fiction felt about being paired off against each other.

The following year, the reputation of the Booker prize was clinched. Again, two substantial talents (this time virtual unknowns) came down to the wire together: Salman Rushdie for ''Midnight's Children,'' a work of imaginative virtuosity about India; and D.M. Thomas for ''The White Hotel,'' the Freudian fantasy that later met with wide success in the United States.

The year is remembered not only for the fact that Rushdie won, but for the controversy that ensued after his victory was announced. One of the Booker judges, writer and critic Brian Aldiss, decided to describe exactly what went on during the judging process in a lengthy article in a national newspaper.

This glimpse of life backstage at the Booker grabbed the public interest, and although prize officials publicly abhorred the judge's act, it has been said that privately they knew a great publicity coup when they saw one.

Last year, another healthy controversy arose when Australian Thomas Keneally won the prize for ''Schindler's Ark,'' (published as ''Schindler's List'' in the US) about a benign Nazi who saved the lives of many Jews during World War II. Everyone agreed it was an excellent book, but not everyone agreed that it was fiction - and therefore eligible for the prize in the first place.

This year, the momentum of the Booker prize has been maintained. ''Without any doubt, this is an exciting year,'' Goff says. ''The norm for the last few years is that we have had two books (out of six or seven finalists) really in the running. This year, it is a hard choice between three or four.''

Awaiting this year's winner is a (STR)10,000 prize and a virtual guarantee of greatly increased book sales. For the first time a majority - 3 out of 5 - of the judges are women; and also for the first time, the panel is chaired by a woman, the well-known British novelist Fay Weldon. (The competition is open to writers from Britain, the Commonwealth, Ireland, South Africa, and Pakistan.)

So who will win the 1983 Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction? (The identity of the winner is an assured secret as the final judging occurs today (26 october).

Will it be Salman Rushdie again, for his new novel, ''Shame,'' a fantasia on life in Pakistan; Graham Swift for ''Waterland,'' an involved saga set in the marshy lands of the Fen district in eastern England; the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee for ''Life and times of Michael K.,'' an intense and socially resonant story about the struggles of a simple-minded hero in a grim South Africa of the future; or outsider Malcolm Bradbury for his humorous ''Rates of Exchange,'' about an Englishman traveling behind the Iron Curtain? The other two finalists are Anita Mason for ''The Illusionist'' and John Fuller for ''Flying to Nowhere.''

How does 34-year-old Graham Swift, a Londoner who is strongly tipped to win, feel about tonight? ''There'll be the tension of waiting for the result,'' he says. ''It's a highly publicized event, and the television cameras will be there. There will be live interviews. It will be very demanding. It's going to be grueling indeed.''

Grueling for the finalists, lucrative for the winner, and fascinating for the British public, which has learned that the annual drama of the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction, were it ever to be made into a novel, would make a very good read.

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