You are here

Martyn Goff: colouring the black and white page

Martyn Goff: colouring the black and white page

The death of Martyn Goff, the Administrator of the Booker Prize and Man Booker Prize from 1970 to 2006, leaves the books world a duller place. It was Goff – gregarious and mischievous – who made the Prize pre-eminent. Although he was tireless in his support of literature (his first career was as a bookseller), he realised that old-fashioned, polite methods were never going to gain books the sort of role in public discourse he desired. So he shook things up a bit. He was celebrated for disingenuously letting slip interesting gobbets to the newspapers – who obligingly printed them. And although he presided over extremely civilised judging panels, he nevertheless gave the impression that the odd spat wouldn't go amiss. On his watch Malcolm Muggeridge resigned from the 1971 panel claiming to be ‘nauseated and appalled’ by the books he had to read. The following year, John Berger donated his prize money for G to the Black Panther movement. In 1973, J.G. Farrell used his winner's speech to denounce capitalism. The chair of the 1977 panel, Philip Larkin, meanwhile, said he would throw himself out of the window if Paul Scott’s novel Staying On didn’t win (it did, so he didn't).

Professor John Sutherland, a two-time judge, pointed out that the reason other prizes had not won the recognition gained by the Man Booker was that they did not have ‘a Martyn Goff beating the bushes and getting people to phone up to ask what you think about people saying nasty things about you’. Hilary Mantel, a judge in 1990, was equivocal about such methods and recalls that: ‘Not a discourteous word was exchanged between the hardworking judges’, much to Goff's disappointment, ‘who praised us to our faces and later whined that we were boring.’ Such shenanigans undoubtedly helped get the Prize talked about and thus noticed; underneath them all was a fierce commitment to the books themselves. As Prof Sutherland went on to note: ‘The current health of English fiction can be explained in two words: Martyn Goff.’

The announcement of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize finalists has been met with great interest – and not just in those six countries (Libya, Mozambique, Guadeloupe, Hungary, South Africa and Congo) never previously represented. One of the most notable aspects of the 10 names chosen by the judges is their internationalism: Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya), for example, is a Tuareg now living in Switzerland; Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) writes in French but teaches in America; Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) lives in America; Mia Couto (Mozambique) has Portuguese parents; Hoda Barakat (Lebanon) writes in Arabic but lives in France. The range of writing experience is equally broad: László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) is, for example, a screenwriter as well as a novelist (perhaps that explains why some of his sentences can run on for several pages); Fanny Howe (USA) is better known as a poet than novelist; Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa) is a professor in Afrikaans and Dutch as well as a writer (with a taste for slang); César Aira (Argentina) has written more than 80 books while Amitav Ghosh (India) a ‘mere’ eight (though they are big ones). None of the writers has appeared on a MBI list before. What is one to make of such heterogeneity? What they offer, as the chair of Judges Dame Marina Warner pointed out at the list's unveiling, is an entrée to the novel ‘as a field of inquiry, a tribunal of history, a map of the heart, a probe of the psyche, a stimulus to thought, a well of pleasure and a laboratory of language. Truly, we feel closer to the tree of knowledge.’ The winner of MBI, worth £60,000, will be revealed Tuesday 19 May 2015