The winner of the Booker has never been easy to predict with the outsider often pulling off a shock. Take DC Pierre’s victory in 2003, who would have thought that such a populist narrative (imagine Jerry Springer on death row) would ever get the nod above a literary goliath such as Margaret Atwood or Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, which ticked all of the right boxes with her tale of multicultural life in the capital. Another notable exception to be usurped was William Trevor who lost out to rookie Yann Martel a year earlier. If anyone deserves the golden toaster of recognition for services to literature, it’s our Trev. But it does suggest that the Booker is free of cultural bias and favouritism, although the conspiracy junkies will tell you its very ‘unpredictability’ is evidence of foul play.
Perhaps it’s not the books we should be looking at then, but the judges. They have, after all, been selected for their suitability – although the selection of some panellists is arguably as controversial as the winners. Was it any surprise that Conservative elder statesman Douglas Hurd plumped for Ian McKewan’s Amsterdam? Who else would even care, let alone identify with, the misadventures of a foreign secretary, composer and newspaper editor? It was a self-indulgent status-dropping yarn, written for the inner circle. Then there is that other great bastion of the written word, Michael Portillo. When he opted for Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger he was offering the world an insight in to a corrupt Indian ‘told you so’ society, whilst proving – without any reasonable doubt – he was a nice guy Eddie, a man of the many different types of people of GB Ltd, and nothing like those ghastly Spitting Image caricatures. ‘I hope you all feel guilty for getting me wrong’ was the subtext.
When Lisa Jardine, the former protégé of Raymond Williams (CV: founding father of British Cultural Studies), crowned the Life of Pi literary king, she was admiring his humanitarian observations of the human condition, such as the need to respect difference and how to live in harmony with Others. Then there is last year’s winner Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel’s speculation of political life would no doubt have pleased Radio Four’s James Naughtie, who in The Rivals and The Accidental American has exposed the ‘lark tongue’ shenanigans of the New Labour courtiers.
So let’s speculate about this year’s chosen ringmaster, Sir Andrew Motion, a curiously contradictory figure. On one level he is firmly a member of the establishment after his tenure as Poet Laureate and all that Lady Di hype. He also has a presence – in some capacity – on some of the most significant cultural organisations in the country. But he’s also a self-confessed ‘old school leftie’ and still a party member. In person he is softly spoken, awfully polite, and strikes you as a man of integrity. But then according to some critics this is another contradiction, less we forget the ‘Larkin betrayal’ and that affair. But it is the loss of his mother after years in a coma that has had the profoundest affect. To be physically present yet unable to communicate on a meaningful level has, I believe, shaped his psyche. The book that taps into this will win on Oct 12th.
This blog was first published for Nottinghamshire Libraries Booker debate