Unpredictable, arbitrary, unreliable…The Man Booker Prize may be all that and more. Yet, for 40 years, it has unfailingly picked winners that have staying power. Who will win it this October 6?

There will be five exhausted writers in search of refuge on October 6, 2009. A sixth will be the ecstatic, just-crowned winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

The practice of releasing a Booker longlist of 12 to 13 books began in 2001; after a month, it is winnowed down to a shortlist. The six shortlisted authors have another month to wait before the prize is announced. This month passes in a maelstrom of speculation, betting and controversies, taut with delight and terror. Although, as 1996 winner Graham Swift said, “Prizes don’t make writers ... and writers don’t write to win prizes,” the pressure is monstrous. This year’s favourite, Hilary Mantel, describes her state of mind thus: “By the time the shortlist is released you simply don’t know what to do with yourself. You realise that, in effect, by becoming a writer you have agreed to sit exams all your life ... the more public the process is, the more cruel.”

When the first Booker was awarded in 1969 to P. H. Newby, the process of choosing a winner was neither as interminable nor as public. Market forces and media pressures in the intervening 40 years have made a competitive sport out of literary awards, and the run-up to the Booker smells more of a soccer game than a salon. Bookies change the stakes every day. The judges are judged. Blogs are on fire. Authors make provocative statements. This year, A.S. Byatt has worried that “...the increasing appearance of ‘faction’ — mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention... feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy.” Is this an attempt to guillotine her rival, Hilary Mantel, whose shortlisted book, Wolf, is about Henry VIII and Cromwell? (Ironically, Byatt’s Possession, which won in 1990, drew on the life of Robert Browning.)

Controversial

The Booker thrives on controversy, and its downfall is regularly forecast. In previous years, columnists have railed against shortlisted novels written “for prizes”. By this they meant less-than-gripping novels about war/ genocide/ terrorism/racism. Jock Campbell, who started the Booker foundation in the 1940s — initially to provide a tax haven for his friend Ian Fleming — grumbled some years ago that the modern literary novel needed “better story-lines”. In1996, A.N. Wilson mourned the demise of the Booker in a newspaper article.

Columnists have claimed that the Booker no longer makes a difference to sales. When Keri Hulme’s The Bone People was published, its print-run was 800 copies, and one review called it a “disaster”. After it won, it sold 34,000 copies. No longer, said journalists: the Booker was losing its alchemic touch. Because it went year after year to worthy novels nobody enjoyed reading, people had stopped buying shortlisted books.

This year, one columnist has called the shortlist a “literary staycation” — when Irish, Commonwealth and British writers are all eligible, five of the shortlisted authors are home-grown, and historical fiction focused on Britain dominates (see box). If Adiga’s The White Tiger (India/ poverty/ class war) had come out this year, where would it be? If Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil (Afghanistan/terrorism) or Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (Pakistan/ Hiroshima/ terrorism) had been published last year, they may have been guaranteed shortlist slots. For authors, it’s the luck of the draw.

How reliable then is the Booker as branding for literary fiction? Can it remain the Levis of the English literary world?

If anything appears consistent, it is the unpredictability of the Booker. A Nobel for literature is given for the life’s work of a writer, not for one book. About 160 major libraries across the world nominate novels for the longlist of Dublin’s Impac Award. The Costa is given in five categories, First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book. The Orange Prize too has a separate First Book category.

Arbitrary

The Booker has no categories, there is just the one big prize. (It might be argued that this “All or Nothing” is what creates an extra frisson.) There are no set criteria. Everything depends on the year’s five judges, who admit that the selection process is subjective. Their tastes, and their power-games, decide writers’ destinies. One judge, Joanna Lumley, described the “so-called bitchy world of acting” as “a Brownie’s tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing.”

Judges have themselves been controversial. The year Naipaul won (for In a Free State), Malcolm Muggeridge resigned as a judge, “nauseated and appalled” by the submissions. Kingsley Amis was shortlisted when his wife was one of the judges. The critic James Wood recommended a novel by Clare Messud to his fellow judges, neglecting to mention that she was his wife. In 1993, the publisher Anthony Cheetham called the judges “a bunch of wankers” for not shortlisting Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

The process is arbitrary from the start: novels can be submitted for the prize only by publishers. Authors cannot enter their own books. Each publisher is allowed to submit two titles. (Past winners are automatically considered, and judges can call for a few titles.) Gossip networks claimed that Rushdie made it a contractual obligation for his publisher to submit The Enchantress of Florence. What of writers like Yann Martel (winner, 2002), whose The Life of Pi was a first book? Would it even have been submitted for the prize if, instead of a small press in Edinburgh, the book had come out from a monolith dominated by literary superstars? Another debut, Adiga’s The White Tiger (winner, 2008), was published by an independent press with a small list — one reason it was submitted for the prize at all.

Test of time

Whatever its drawbacks, for 40 years, the Booker has picked novels with staying power. All but one of the winners remain in print, when forests of fiction are turned into paper bags. For Indians writing in English, the Man Booker Prize is among the richest, most prestigious prizes for which they are eligible. Apart from the prize money, film deals can follow, publishing contracts become more lucrative, the author’s life changes.

Exactly how transformational is the Booker? Here is Sebastian Barry, on being shortlisted last year:

“As usual, there is no one in the house when you need to tell someone something urgently. There is a silence and a gap and a happiness. It is almost odd to be so happy, because a lot of literary experience is like boxing. Once you’ve had a few KOs against you, you tend to go quiet in the face of any possible victory. But again the Booker seems to brush all that aside. You’re a Blakean kid again, with all your experience perhaps, but something else again. There is a tincture of newness, new territory, impossible good luck ...”

Anuradha Roy is the author of the novel An Atlas of Impossible Longing.

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Booker shortlist 2009

Short takes on this year’s nominations by novelist NEEL MUKHERJEE.

A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book. Byatt visits the Edwardian era in her complex and layered novel on the intertwined fates of two artistic families, the Wellwoods and the Fludds, and delivers a devastating novel about childhood and its loss. It is also a characteristically dense Byatt novel: by the time you finish it, you have learnt everything about the Edwardian period that there is to know.

J.M. Coetzee, Summertime. The third instalment in the trilogy of “fictionalised memoir” that includes Boyhood and Youth, Summertime involves an English biographer’s research into the artistically critical years, 1972-77, of the late South African writer John Coetzee. Playful, elusive, yet unrelentingly honest, Summertime makes a ringing claim for the truth that only fiction can tell.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze. Foulds’s second novel, written in lyrical, restrained prose of near-perfection, is a deceptively slim book about the incarceration of the 19th-century nature poet John Clare in an asylum in Epping Forest in the late 1830s. It is also a subtle meditation on the mysterious nature of the creative process.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Mantel’s novel about Thomas Cromwell follows him from his shadowy origins as a blacksmith’s son in Putney to his elevation as the indispensable right-hand man of Henry VIII. The book ends with the death of Thomas More in 1535, so there’s a follow-up on its way; Cromwell lived until 1540. Nothing like this book exists in contemporary English writing: its history is so deeply inhabited, its narration in terms of both point of view and style so utterly original, that it animates the Tudor era miraculously.

Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. Viktor and Liesel Landauer have architect Rainer von Abt build them a modernist masterpiece, Der Galsraum, in Czechoslovakia. But this is the late 1930s and the Landauers flee the country as Nazis take over their house of dreams. The whole troubled history of the 20th century then unfolds through reflection in the Glass Room.

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. Waters does the ghost story in this novel about a working-class country GP, Dr. Faraday, visiting a patient in Hundreds Hall, the seat of the Ayres family, now fallen on hard times. The year is 1947, the patient is a 14-year-old skivvy, and there are inexplicable and spooky goings-on in the Georgian manor house. Waters is scalpel-sharp in her dissection of post-war class hierarchies and attitudes.

Neel Mukherjee is the author of the novel, Past Continuous, which own the Crossword Award, 2009.

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