The Booker Prize. Part One: 1969 – 1989


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By Niall McArdle

This year’s winner of the Booker Prize will be announced on October 15th. Once again, the shortlist is a mix of old favourites and nice surprises.  Conventional wisdom has it that winning the Booker guarantees an author fame and fortune. But that’s not always the case.

In fact, you might be surprised by some of the names of previous winners; surprised, that is, because it’s possible you’ve never heard of them. For every Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, there’s a Stanley Middleton or a P.H. Newby..

Who has the staying power? Who’s a flash in the pan?

1969

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P.H. Newby Something to Answer For 

The first winner of the Booker Prize, P.H. Newby, worked at the BBC and was the author of A Journey Into the Interior. He would also go on to be a Booker judge in 1978. Something to Answer For is set in Cairo (where Newby had worked).

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P.H. Newby

In Something to Answer For a fund manager, Townrow, embezzles money and flees to Egypt, where he meets the widow of an old friend, Elie, and encounters all sorts of people and has generally surreal experiences. He is considered an unreliable narrator; at one point he gets drunk and blacks out  the novel becomes much more dream-like, with Townrow a very unreliable narrator who cannot remember his nationality  nor whether his mother is alive.

He meets Leah, who is married and repels his attentions though apparently she later becomes his lover and develops an obsession for him. Townrow walks though scenes of mob unrest, is arrested as a spy, and watches bloody gunfights between Egyptian and British troops with bemused detachment.

It’s perhaps not surprising this was a Booker winner. Booker loves unreliable narrators, bemused detachment and sex that may or may not have taken place. The Egyptian setting allows for some standard-issue post-colonial critique, another Booker favourite. He beat out both Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch.

1970

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Bernice Rubens The Elected Member

Rubens’ father was a Lithuanian Jew who, at the age of 16, left mainland Europe in 1900 in the hope of starting a new life in New York. Due to being swindled by a ticket tout, he never reached America, his passage taking him no further than Wales. Although tempted by the life of a coalminer, she opted to become an writer. She is the author of Madam Sousatzka, later a film which began Shirley Maclaine’s ‘Batty Old Lady” period

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Bernice Rubens, second-most famous Welshwoman (after Shirley Bassey)

In The Elected Member, the novel’s main character is Norman Zweck, who is addicted to amphetamines and is convinced that he sees silverfish wherever he goes. Okay, so it was 1970. A lot of weird things happened in literature in 1970. Iris Murdoch was once again a runner-up, as were those notorious pill-poppers Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor.

1970 (redux): The Lost Booker

Perhaps as a result of all the amphetamines that people were taking, some weirdness went down in publishing houses and several books in 1970 were disqualified or ineligible because of the dates that they were printed. In 2010 the Lost Booker Prize made up for this oversight by selecting a shortlist of novels that should have been considered in 1970; the prize was awarded by public vote to

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J.G. Farrell Troubles

Troubles was the first of what would become known as the Empire Trilogy. Farrell died tragically young – and like a 19th century literary character – after being swept away in a storm off Bantry Bay.

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J.G. Farrell

Troubles concerns the arrival of Englishman Major Brendan Archer  at the Majestic Hotel on the Wexford coast in 1919. Archer is convinced he is engaged, though sure he had never actually proposed, to Angela Spencer, the daughter of Edward Spencer, the elderly owner of the Majestic Hotel. She has written to him since they met in 1916 while on leave from the trench warfare of the Western Front.

As the novel progresses, social and economic relationships break down, mirrored by the gentle decay of the hotel.

William Trevor had recovered enough from his speed-freakiness to declare it “a tour de force of considerable quality”, and once again Booker had British colonialism under its microscope. Muriel Spark was once again a runner-up, which must have pleased Iris Murdoch enormously.

1971

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V.S. Naipaul In a Free State

Naipaul is a Trinidadian of Indian descent. His father was taken to Trinidad as an indentured servant. Naipaul is known for the wistfully comic early novels of Trinidad, the bleaker thematically expansive novels of the wider world, and the vigilant chronicles of his travels and life, all written in his trademark, widely admired, prose style, and the Booker people must have been on to something, because in 2001 Naipaul won the Nobel Prize.

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V.S. Naipaul

In a Free State is symphonic, with different movements working towards an overriding theme. What that theme is is not too clearly spelled out. However, there is an important aspect relating to the price of freedom, with analogies between the three situations.

It charmed the Booker jury, perhaps because it has certain things Booker likes.

Post-colonial issues √

Very dark humour  √

Confusing theme  √

Saul Bellow and John Fowles were among the judges. Naipaul beat out Doris Lessing and Mordecai Richler. Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch were nowhere to be seen.

1972

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John Berger G.

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John Berger

John Berger is more famous as an art critic than as a writer of fiction. He presented a famous BBC television series on Art called Ways of Seeing, which had people across Britain glued to their TVs in the hope of seeing another naked woman.

G. is set in pre-First World War Europe, and its protagonist, named “G.”, is a Don Juan or Casanova-like lover of women who gradually comes to political consciousness after misadventures across the continent. Readers were somewhat disappointed that, unlike Ways of Seeing, there were no pictures, although there is an awful amount of sex and political posturing.

Elizabeth Bowen was one of the judges. Susan Hill and Thomas Keneally were among the runners-up. Berger didn’t like the fact that the prize’s sponsor, Booker McConnell, was involved in the sugar industry in the Carribbean. He gave half the prize money to the Black Panthers, presumably to finance a literary prize of their own.

1973

ImageJ.G. Farrell The Siege of Krishnapur

The sequel to Troubles. Inspired by events such as the sieges of Cawnpore and Lucknow.

Farrell was the first author to win the Booker more than once. For the third time Iris Murdoch, who surely should have taken a hint at this point, was a runner-up.

1974 (Jointly won)

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Nadine Gordimer The Conservationist

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Stanley Middleton Holiday

Proof that in the strange world of the Booker, anything is possible.  Gordimer is a South African writer, political activist and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was recognized as a woman “who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”.

Gordimer’s writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. Under that regime, works such as July’s People were banned. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned. She has recently been active in HIV/AIDS causes.

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The Conservationist is set in apartheid South Africa. Mehring is a rich white businessman who is not satisfied with his life. His ex-wife has gone to America, his liberal son criticizes his conservative/capitalist ways and his lovers and colleagues do not seem actually interested in him. He buys a farm outside the city, afterwards trying to explain this purchase to himself as the search for a higher meaning in life. But it is clear that he knows next to nothing about farming, and that black workers run it – Mehring is simply an outsider, an intruder on the daily life of “his” farm. One day the black foreman, Jacobus, finds an unidentified dead body on the farm. Since the dead man is black, the police find no urgency to look into the case and simply bury the body on the spot where it was found. The idea of an unknown black man buried on his land begins to “haunt” Mehring.

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Stanley Middleton

Middleton was a Nottingham schoolteacher and church organist, and Holiday is every bit as explosive as The Conservationist. Holiday revolves around Edwin Fisher, a lecturer who takes a holiday at a seaside resort.

Gordimer and Middleton beat out C.P Snow, Kingsley Amis and Beryl Bainbridge. In 2006, a reporter for The Sunday Times sent the first chapters of Holiday to a number of publishers and literary agents as a stunt. Almost all rejected it.

1975 (also known as the “50-50 Booker”)

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Heat and Dust

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Jhabvala was a German-born British and American novelist and screenwriter. She is mostly famous for writing scripts for Merchant-Ivory films that deal with the decline of the Raj and pale English girls getting all gooey for pale Englishmen while enjoying the splendour of European cities

She is the only person to have won both a Booker and an Oscar, which must have rubbed salt into the wounds of Thomas Keneally. Not only did he lose out on the Booker for a second time, he was the only other author in the running.

1976

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David Storey Saville

Having lost to ponsing  John G Spot Berger a few years earlier, Storey (who hails from some dark Satanic mill up north) claimed the prize in the name of ‘ardcase rugby players all across the English Midlands. He is the author of This Sporting Life, a novel about ‘ard men playing  ‘ard game of ‘ard rugger, and The Changing Room, a play about ‘ard men hanging out with other ‘ard men in the changing room before and after ‘ard game of ‘ard rugger (and there’s nowt queer about tha’).

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Saville is a tender coming of age tale about young lad growin’ up in ‘arsh Yorkshire mining village at end o’ war … he don’t like rugger, which just goes to show there’s nowt as queer as folk.

The losing authors didn’t write any novels concerning rugby

1977

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Paul Scott Staying On

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Paul Scott lived in India and wrote The Raj Quartet, the first novel of which, The Jewel in the Crown was made into a famous TV series which was very popular with certain types of pale English girls who go all squishy for handsome brown men with impeccable manners

Staying On carries on where the Quartet ends, focusing on two very minor characters from those four books. In publishing terms this is called “milking it for all its worth”.

1978

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Iris Murdoch The Sea, the Sea

About fucking time
“About fucking time.”

Finally! Fourth time’s the charm for Iris.  All it took was a piece of tosh about memory and selfishness set by the seaside.  And she got her own back on that bloody Welsh tart Bernice Rubens. We don’t know what Murdoch did with the prize money; it’s safe to say she probably didn’t share it with Muriel Spark.

1979

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Penelope Fitzgerald Offshore

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Iris Murdoch may have been on to something. For the second year in a row a book set by the water scoops the Booker.  The novel recalls Fitzgerald’s time spent on boats in Battersea by the Thames. The novel centralizes around the idea of liminality, expanding upon it to include the notion: ‘liminal people,’ people who do not belong to the land or the sea, but somewhere in-between.

Yes, it sounds like Twilight but with mermaids. Still, it worked for her, and she beat Thomas Keneally. What does Thomas Keneally have to do to win the Booker?

1980

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William Golding Rites of Passage

Okay, Murdoch was DEFINITELY on to something. If you thought William Golding was just the guy who wrote that guidebook to survival for boy scouts, Lord of the Flies, think again. He won the Booker in 1980 with a novel set on a ship. He beat Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers in a closely-contested race. Burgess believed he deserved the prize; in fact, he refused to attend the ceremony unless he was assured he would win.

Three years later Golding  was the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize. Everyone expected it would go to … Anthony Burgess

Fuck you, Anthony Burgess
Fuck you, Anthony Burgess

1981

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Salman Rushdie Midnight’s Children

Spare a thought please for Molly Keane, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Ann Schlee, D.M. Thomas, and Muriel ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ Spark. In 1981 they were beaten to the Booker by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But that’s okay, it’s just a little contest; it doesn’t really mean anything, and your novels are wonderful, really. Look, Muriel Spark probably didn’t even show up.

Yes, I'm that good
Yes, I’m that good

But no! Not only did Salman Rushdie win the Booker with his magic-realist take on the birth of Modern India, but then, as if that wasn’t enough, in 1993 the Booker people decided to declare his novel “The Booker’s Booker”: the Best of the Best, la Creme de la Creme. So not only was poor old Muriel Spark a three-time loser of the Booker Prize, but she went to her grave knowing that she was pummelled by basically the Best Booker Novel Ever. That’s like putting Barry McGuigan in the ring with Mike Tyson. Way to build confidence, Booker!

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“Did you read that piece about metaphysical longing and contemporary literature in last week’s TLS?”

Mind you, it’s Muriel’s own fault, as Iris Murdoch will happily tell you. None of Sparks’ books are set by the sea. Midnight’s Children isn’t set by the sea either, but it’s a magic-realist novel in the vein of Borges or Marquez. Normal rules don’t apply in magic-realism. Characters live a very long time. There’s ghosts, and angels, but it’s no big deal. It’s basically fantasy minus the association with nerds. It can do whatever it wants.

Magical Realism is  pretty much the literary equivalent of the 1%

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

1982

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Thomas Keneally Schindler’s Ark

Just when Thomas Keneally thought he was going to be given the Muriel Spark Award for Literary Losers, he pulled this off.

You can relax now, Thomas:

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1983

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J.M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K

Screw you, Salman Rushdie. Just because you wrote Midnight’s Children a couple of years back doesn’t mean you’re always going to win the Booker. So your Shame, along with novels my Malcolm Bradbury and Graham Swift, loses out to Coetzee, who is no flash in the pan: he would go on to win the Nobel Prize.

Coetzee looking dubious about winning the Nobel Prize
Coetzee looking dubious about winning the Nobel Prize

Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa and is about a man with a cleft lip making an arduous journey carrying his mother’s ashes. He is detained for not having the right travel papers. Hang on! Isn’t this the plot of The Terminal?

1984

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Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac

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Magic-realism and post-colonial critique be damned. You don’t need all that nonsense. Although if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that once again a book set by the water won the prize. Brookner’s charming tale of lonely spinster Edith Hope and assorted English tourists at a Lake Geneva resort won over the Booker panel, leaving J.G. Ballard and Julian Barnes in the dust.

1985

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Keri Hulme The Bone People

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Iris Murdoch was back to being an also-ran, along with Peter Carey and Doris Lessing. Hulme’s novel is about three people who struggle very hard to figure out what love is and how to find it.

So it’s the literary version of this:

1986

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Kingsley Amis The Old Devils

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Old devil Amis finally gets the Booker, beating out the likes of Margaret Atwood, Timothy Mo and Robertson Davies. The novel is about a group of Welshmen who drink a lot.

1987

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Penelope Lively Moon Tiger

A very Bookerish type: A novel written from multiple points of view that moves backwards and forwards through time. It begins as the story of a woman who, on her deathbed, decides to write a history of the world, and develops into a story of love, incest and the desire to be recognized as an independent free thinking woman of the time.

Lively beat out Chinua Achebe, Peter Ackroyd and Iris Murdoch, who by now was definitely back on  the also-ran list

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I’d like to talk a little now about the time I bitch-slapped Iris Murdoch

1988

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Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda

A novel about a gambling vicar and his girlfriend who have a bet about transporting a glass church. It beat books by David Lodge, Bruce Chatwin, and something called The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

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1989

200px-KazuoIshiguro_TheRemainsOfTheDayKazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day

A memory novel about the English stiff upper lip and the last days of the aristocracy, Ishiguro’s book is practically  tailor-made for Merchant Ivory:

So there you have it; the first twenty years of Booker … and nothing for poor Muriel Spark

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Muriel Spark

4 thoughts on “The Booker Prize. Part One: 1969 – 1989

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