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‘Lost Man Booker’ will finally recognize best novel of…1970

February 2, 2010

Len Deighton -- can a thriller win the Man Booker Prize?

You’d think the English would be adept at all things having to do with books, writing, reading. But news of a decision to award a “Lost Man Booker Prize,” a mere 40 years late, is shaking my Angophiliac faith in British rectitude, propriety and commonsense. Who’s in charge over there — Benny HIll?

I mean, the announcement a Man Booker Prize will finally be given for 1970(!) could signal that justice is being served for the 22 authors stiffed way back then. Or it could mean the Man Booker Prize has become the most gimmicky literary award in the world.

As Sam Jones explains in The Guardian, the Man Booker changed its rules in 1971. Instead of honoring books retrospectively–for the previous years’s work–the prize began recognizing the “best novel in the year of publication.” The date of announcement switched from April to November.

This meant that 1971’s award went to the best novel of 1971 (V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State) leaving the 22 authors on the 1970 long list out in the cold. Among them: Iris Murdoch, David Lodge, Joe Orton, Len Deighton, Brian Aldiss, Ruth Rendell, Melvyn Bragg, Muriel Spark. No short list was announced — things didn’t get that far before the rules change.

Credit for the idea of rectifying the oversight goes to Peter Straus, honorary archivist for the Booker Prize Foundation, who discovered the lapse. Ion Trewin, Man Booker’s literary director, also known as “Captain Obvious,” said, “Recognition for these novels and the eventual winner is long overdue.”

All well and good. 1970 may have been, as Trewin says, a “remarkable year” for fiction. But most of the writers are beyond caring, being, you know, dead.

The short list of six titles will be selected by a panel of three judges — critic Rachel Cooke, newsreader Katie Derham and poet/novelist Tobias Hill — all born “in or around 1970.” Is this delicious or what?

The winner, chosen by public voting at the Man Booker website, will be announced in March.

Drawing fresh attention to these books, all of which are still in print and easily available, is a service to readers, no doubt.

But it’s starting to seem like a new Man Booker Prize is announced every few months. Not quite, but in 2008 a “Best of the Bookers” was awaded to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as the best novel in the first 40 years of the prize. What will they do for the 50th anniversary?

The Guardian‘s Sam Jordison anticipates my  cynicism, writing that while this all can be seen “as a rather tired publicity wheeze,” the story of the Lost Booker is a good one. It also gives a unique opportunity to award a prize with the benefit of hindsight.

And says Jordison, the best novel of 1970 was Deighton’s Bomber — imagine, a thriller winning Britain’s top literary prize! Let’s hope.

So what do you think — publicity wheeze or remedy for literary injustice?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 2, 2010 2:21 pm

    I say better late than never.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 2, 2010 4:38 pm

    Yeah, I buy that, and I’m always in favor of anything that keeps the conversation about books going, especially now that so many newspapers (most of them, in fact), have let their critics go and rely on the same old can copy from New York. But the Man Booker does appear to be grubbing for publicity in an unseemly way.

  3. February 2, 2010 10:21 pm

    Look to Hollywood and its selection of 10 Best Everything to win an Oscar. It all comes down to dollars – and sense, Chauncey. Being cynical now – it makes the Lost Booker a prize that may not actually award the dead author, but will reward the publishing industry. Good lordy we need to find some way to sell books! I agree. Even though in some pissedoff way I know they are jerking my chain. Still, I’ll no doubt order the bugger’s book. Hey, I haven’t said this yet, but I am grateful for what I learn from this blog.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 3, 2010 1:40 am

    Why, thank you, Duff. It’s a joy to write it every day. Since this morning, I’ve come to think maybe I was riding my horse a little higher than usual. The story of the Lost Booker is an interesting quirk of literary history, and as Candice says, better late than never. I guess I’m still annoyed by the 40th anniversary Best of the Bookers — 40th? Who does a big celebration for a 40th anniversary? Except, of course, someone needing a hit of publicity….

  5. rachel permalink
    February 3, 2010 3:03 pm

    I think that anything that revives interest in older books is a great thing.

    That being said, this seems a little ridiculous to me.

    Also: If Salam Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” is the best of the bookers then woe is me.

    Although: The Man Booker Prize does have a nice ring to it, as a name.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2010 4:30 pm

      Yes, it makes it all the sweeter when the prize goes to a woman, don’t you think?

  6. February 4, 2010 1:03 pm

    Well I know of some book awards here that take a 30 year old classic , a new printing and publishing is done and they enter it as new. Now new authors are competing with a known classic. Guess who wins. I have if fact brought this to the awards people attention. I sugested they start a new category for books that are re-published. But this happens in these awards. This is an interesting twist.

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