17 December 2012
The latest five noses to be put to the grindstone have now been revealed. The announcement of the judging panel is an important moment each year because the Man Booker Prize is only as good as its judges. Part of the reason the prize is heralded internationally is because the judges stand as a guarantee of literary weight and seriousness of intent. If the public, publishers and writers don't trust in the competence of the judges then they don't trust the prize. If they don't trust the prize then it becomes just another literary award.
The 2013 judges have some heavyweight credentials. There are two academics in the chair Robert Macfarlane and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and an associate academic in Stuart Kelly. Martha Kearney and Natalie Hayes are experienced broadcasters. All five are professional writers of one sort or another and all have extensive journalistic experience.
Some of these attributes are more important than they first seem. Book reviewing, for example, is not the same as simply reading lots of books. Reviewing means that books tend to be read more slowly, notes are taken along the way, the merits of texts are judged with more consideration and the act of writing a review necessarily means some in-depth thinking. Writing at the relatively short length demanded by reviews also means that concision is vital. Breadth of reading is important because it is the only way to get a comparative grasp on what is new, what is fresh and what is good. Teaching literature means that unpicking books, examining their entrails and delineating the essentials are learnt skills.
The prize administrators have come up with a panel rich in all these traits and experiences. Among other attributes Natalie Haynes will be able to add a dash of classical reference while Martha Kearney can bring her experience of chairing the Orange Prize to bear. Robert Macfarlane meanwhile will know the best places to walk to clear his head. The 2012 chair of judges Peter Stothard emphasised that during his panel's discussions, saying “I like this book” was not an option. Saying “I like this book because …” was. Messrs Macfarlane, Douglas-Fairhurst, Haynes, Kearney and Kelly will be more than capable of explaining the “because”.
One of the indefinables of a judging panel is not the members' suitability but how they will gel as a group. Sometimes you can take five individual good eggs and the result when they are put together is less than palatable. It is of course the chair's responsibility to manage the different personalities of a group of distinguished people who will have opinions and who are used to expressing them. Some will be naturally loquacious, others more reticent, all need to have a fair say.
This year's panel have already started their reading and will be getting the first inklings of just what is in store as they face the prospect of more than 130 novels stretching out in front of them. They will also know that in the end they themselves who will be judged – on their longlist, shortlist and winner.