Backstage at the Booker

Publishers bicker, judges complain, sponsors waver.

Published October 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Literary London was out in force for the Booker Prize this year. It was impossible to move in Soho Monday night without stumbling into editors, agents and publicists party-hopping until the early hours of the morning. While the official ceremony took place at the lavish Guild Hall, that party soon wound down and the invited guests decamped to the various publishers' parties.

It is customary for the publishers of the nominated books to rent out London's more exclusive members' clubs for their after-ceremony parties. Random House, which had two books on the list, including the winning "Disgrace" by J.M. Coetzee, booked the most famous club, the Groucho. Rival parties took place in nearby Soho House (Picador), the Union (Faber and Faber) and Two Brydges (Bloomsbury). All of these clubs are within very short walking distance and most people soon began to circulate among the various establishments.

The mood at the Random House party was quite subdued until the winner was announced, at which point the place erupted into life. While the tradition is for everyone to head to the winning publisher's party, this year, surprisingly, the biggest turnout was for the Picador party, with even Coetzee's editor, Geoff Mulligan, tiring of the free champagne at Groucho and sneaking over just after midnight.

The Booker is always controversial. At the start of this year's race, judge John Sutherland (professor of modern English literature at University College London) provoked the most comment by writing newspaper columns complaining about how little he was being paid for his time and the amount of reading he was being forced to do. His championing of Salman Rushdie also raised eyebrows, particularly when a review he wrote of Rushdie's novel "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" sported the headline "The 1999 Booker Winner."

Another judge, the Independent's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, ended up causing much more of a stir, however, when he announced his surprise that one of the books he most enjoyed this year, Harold Jacobson's "The Mighty Walzer," had not been submitted for the prize. As each publisher is only allowed to submit two books, the choice of titles entered is always a contentious issue, and Jacobson's editor, Dan Franklin, announced his outrage at Tonkin revealing a decision that is supposed to be secret. The two men made up after Monday night's ceremony, and were seen shaking hands.

There was also some surprise at the judging chairman, Labor M.P. Gerald Kaufman, and his comment during his speech that Anita Desai's "Fasting, Feasting" was the panel's runner-up. (He also suggested that publishers submit more detective novels to the judges.) While Kaufman said that there had been no question of splitting the prize between the two authors (as happened with the award in both 1974 and 1992), Tonkin confessed to London's Evening Standard that if that were still permitted, the jury might have considered it.

Michael Frayn, whose "Headlong" was the bookmaker's favorite, was understood to be a clear third in the ranking, although judge Sutherland let slip in the Guardian that one of the female panelists had said Frayn would get the award "over her dead body."

Last year's television coverage of the Booker proved extremely controversial, with self-styled wild man Will Self pouring scorn on the winning novel, Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam." This year, Channel Four was taking no chances, and broke with the tradition of having a panel of novelists commenting on the list by having instead a "people's panel," made up of ordinary readers who also picked Coetzee as their winner.

Recent rumors have circulated that the Booker Prize may not continue to be sponsored by Booker McConnell Ltd., and that a new sponsor may soon step in. This has not been confirmed, but if it proves to be the case there will be no shortage of companies willing to back the prestigious award, even if Booker McConnell doesn't seem quite sure it's getting its money's worth. While every year's short-list provokes endless discussion, there is no doubt that it remains the most important literary prize in London, as well as the focus of the entire second half of the publishing calendar.

By Matt Thorne

Matt Thorne lives in London and is the author of "Tourist," "Eight Minutes Idle" and "Dreaming of Strangers." He also co-edited "All Hail the New Puritans."

MORE FROM Matt Thorne

Related Topics ------------------------------------------