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Booker or Bucklersbury Prize?

Booker or Bucklersbury Prize?

It is a moot point at what moment the present turns into history. For the Man Booker Prize, 50 years will do. As the material surrounding five decades of the prize has grown – the number of winners and judges, the controversies, the changes to the prize – so has its importance as a record of the best fiction in English of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Since 2003, the Man Booker archive has been held, as a resource for scholars, at Oxford Brookes University. Now, in this 50th anniversary year, the university has launched a “50 Years of the Booker Prize in 50 Items” webpage as well as digitising all the papers relating to the first year of the prize in 1969. Among the many revelations are the fact that the prize narrowly missed being called the  Bucklersbury Prize after Bucklersbury House, the location of Booker's head office; that the awards ceremony was once held at Claridges; that in 1993, workers at Middlebrook Mushrooms (the fungi subsidiary of Booker plc) intended to disrupt the prize dinner to complain about unfair dismissal (they didn't); and the swingeing judgement of the 1994 Chair of judges, Professor John Bayley, that “new fiction is at best ambitious and at worst pretentious”.


The new Vintage Man Booker website also contains audio recordings from the British Library archives of prize winners discussing what the prize meant to them (according to Howard Jacobson, when the moment of his win came he felt “all the blood leave my body”) and, by way of light relief, a song by the comedian Adam Kay. Set to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's “A Modern Major General”, it features the names of all 51 winning books in less than a minute. This impressive feat of vocal dexterity has the unfortunate effect of staying in your mind all day long. If you have never found yourself humming the names of, say, A.S. Byatt, Anita Brookner and Barry Unsworth (and why would you?), you will now.


Meanwhile, there is more Man Booker for the ears courtesy of a podcast from the just-finished Edinburgh Literary Festival where two longlistees, Richard Powers and Sophie Mackintosh discuss their novels The Water Cure and The Overstory, and Jennifer Crofts, translator of Olga Tokarczuk's MBI winning Flights, discusses the finer details of her craft and how she and Tokarczuk first met.


This year, a new offshoot award is being added to the main prize – for bookshops rather than writers. The winner of the competition for the most “eye-catching” independent bookshop display of the Man Booker shortlisted books will pick up £1,000 in cash. The winning shop will be announced on the Man Booker social media channels Tuesday 6th November.


The inclusion of Snap by the crime writer Belinda Bauer on the Man Booker longlist has raised eyebrows in various places. But the dismissive tone of some commentators about the inclusion of genre fiction has not surprised her. “There has been some snobbery about it,” she said recently. “To be honest, I expected more. I don't understand it, because I think the important thing is that people read. . . I think that to marginalise any genre of fiction, whether it is literary, or crime, or romance or anything is really just to reduce our reading options.” Critics had better be wary – as one slightly shocked reviewer who had mixed feelings about the book was overheard to say recently: “Crime fans are SCARY.”


Another longlistee, Esi Edugyan, has been explaining why slavery – the subject at the heart of her novel Washington Black – is something that should still be discussed. “When you look at history you are thinking critically,” she said; “you see these recurring motifs. And being aware of them, you can be more on guard.” And the things we need to guard against, she reckons, are “darker things” and that not to discuss them “is to open up the potential for a blind spot or forgetting. We won’t recognize the similar patterns. We must be on guard for those darker impulses within ourselves.”