Posted by: Corri van de Stege | September 6, 2008

Judging panels and the Booker prize

Today’s Guardian, under the title Tears, tiffs and triumphs provides us with some insight into the way booker judges come to select the winner of the Booker prize for the years 1969 to 2007.  Some 38 books suddenly became bestsellers, simply by having been selected.  James Wood (1994), after the experience of having been a judge, says he made a pledge never to judge a big fiction prize again, because of the inevitable horse trading that goes on between the judges and he ‘intensely disliked the way we reached that verdict [of who the winner was going to be] and felt that the arbitrary, utterly political process discredited the whole project‘.  PD James (1967) on the other hand has a milder view ‘The Booker may at times have tended to increase the unhelpful dichotomy between popular storytelling and books which are classified as literary novels, but most of the winners have combined high literary achievement with compelling storytelling.’    David Lodge [1989]  veers more towards Woods’ suspicion of prizes and what they are about: ‘ …[but the overtly competitive nature of these prizes, heightened by the publication of longlists and shortlists, takes its psychological toll n writers; and given the large element of chance in the composition and operation of judging panels, the importance now attached to prizes in our literary culture seems excessive.  A committee is a blunt instrument of literary criticism.‘  Amen to that. 

Fascinatingly, what comes out of all of these 38 views is that, actually, no-one ever changes their mind about which book they like best and so all the discussions that go on never convince anyone of someone else’s better judgment.  I guess it’s as simple as that: either you like a book or you don’t, with a slight luke-warm feeling in between the two extremes.

What do you think?

[pictures taken from the Guardian photogallery]



  1. I found this article fascinating, and helpful in explaining a personally uninspiring list this year.

    I laughed at the descriptions of Dame Rebecca West and Saul bellow as judges!

    And although I enjoyed Paddy Clarke Ha Ha, I wish David Malouf had won in ’93 with Remembering Babylon.

  2. Interesting insight. I was surprised to learn one of the books I reviewed was a booker prize winner. I haven’t gotten around to researching why yet, but I didn’t think it deserved a literary prize. Thanks for the insight.

    Also, this is the first time I’ve been on your site. Great job, and I look forward to future visits!

  3. Sarah: yes the article is definitely one for keeps and refer back to when you wonder ‘why oh why’?
    Rachel: nice to meet you here – and with regard to prizes, now you know 🙂

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