21 November 2012
Robert Macfarlane, the chair of judges for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, is usually described as a travel writer. It is a form of words that is really just shorthand: after all, Patrick Leigh Fermor was a travel writer, and so were Graham Greene, Bruce Chatwin and Henry Miller. An “ambulant man of letters” might be a better description. Macfarlane does, after all, teach English at Cambridge and specialised in borrowings and plagiarism in 19th-century literature – which might just come in handy for what lies ahead.
His trilogy about the landscape – Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways – are not books about topography but about history, the human heart, emotions and urges, the stuff of literature in other words. Macfarlane knows a bit about prizes too, both giving and receiving. He was a Man Booker judge in 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with The Line of Beauty and has himself received numerous awards including The Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.
The landscape he will be surveying for the next 11 months is the literary landscape of 2013. It has its own distinguishing features and natural beauties and Macfarlane and his fellow judges (who will be announced next month) will become experts in its unfolding terrain. He has something of the responsibility of a guide: the Man Booker judging panel is not a fixed entity but a fluid one. No one year is quite like another since the mix of personalities – usually pretty strong ones – have to be harnessed and directed. The chair is vital in this.
The prize itself has a simple remit, which is to pick the best book, how the judges go about their task is not written in stone but driven by each year's chair of judges. There will be times when Macfarlane will need to cajole and console, be firm and be yielding. All the judges must have their say but none must dominate the conversations. The chair can decide not just on procedures – how meetings are organised, when to call for a show of hands etc – but lay out what they as a panel hope to find in the 130 or more books they will read and what qualities in fiction they prize above all others. What, indeed, constitutes literary excellence.
The flavour of the 2013 prize will contain something of the personalities of the judges and how well they have meshed as a group. The official word is that all panels work well and the members get on; it is, of course, not always true. The right chair, each year's Man Booker pater familias, can make the difference between dysfunction and smooth-running. It is a task requiring adroit man-management skills as well as a literary overview. Not one for the faint hearted.
Perhaps fortuitously Robert Macfarlance is currently writing a book called Underland, about subterranean worlds. For months from now he and his fellow judges will be part of that world, working away out of sight until they have found the books that truly deserve to see the light of day.