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A Very Brief History of the Booker Prize

A Very Brief History of the Booker Prize

Booker Prize winners often see their careers transformed and the accolade now receives international recognition. Here we take a brief look at the history of the award, which was created in 1969 ‘to stimulate the reading and discussion of contemporary fiction’.

The idea for the prize came from publishers Tom Maschler and Graham C Greene, who found sponsorship from the wholesale food distributor Booker McConnell – the chairman of Booker at that time, Jock Campbell, had been a close friend of Ian Fleming and had recently established the Booker Authors’ Division to acquire a commercial interest in literary estates, including those of Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and Harold Pinter as well as Fleming’s.

During a few months in 1968 a panel chaired by WL Webb (Literary Editor of the Guardian) and consisting of Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode and David Farrer discussed 60 nominations, eventually awarding the inaugural prize to PH Newby for Something to Answer For. His novel follows a man called Townrow who travels to Egypt in 1956 to investigate the death of his friend, but whose narrative becomes increasingly surreal after he gets drunk and is attacked.

Over the course of its history the Prize has undergone significant changes and weathered its fair share of controversy:

• In 1972 John Berger donated of half his winnings to the British Black Panthers as a public acknowledgement of Booker McConnell’s use of indentured labour in Guyana

• The £5,000 awarded to the winner was doubled to £10,000 in 1978

• Anthony Burgess declared in 1980 that he would only attend the ceremony if he was told beforehand whether he or William Golding had won – the spat creating headline news

• Inclusion of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting on the 1993 longlist caused such a stir that two judges threatened to leave the committee and the now much-acclaimed novel was removed

• In 2002 the administration was transferred to a charity and the winners’ prize rose to £50,000

• The International Booker Prize was created in 2004 to acknowledge a writer’s body of work, but since 2016 has been awarded to a single work of fiction translated into English and published in the UK and Ireland

• The eligibility for nomination changed in 2013 to include any English-language novel published in the UK – seen by some as a broadening that allowed American entries but by others as ‘an elimination of the premise of citizenship’

Here at Postscript we’re pleased to have a selection of Booker Prize winners on our shelves and are looking forward to reading the latest recipient, Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song.

The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)

At 32 years old, Ben Okri was the youngest recipient of the Booker Prize at the time. His award-winning novel blends African mythology and magical realism to tell the story of Azaro – a spirit-child who chooses to stay in the land of the living, despite the requests from his spirit siblings to return to their world.

Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (1988 and 2001)

Both of Peter Carey’s prize-winning novels are contained in our omnibus edition: Oscar and Lucinda follows an Anglican minister who has taken on a bet to transport a glass church 400km across the outback, whereas True History of the Kelly Gang purports to be the autobiography of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)

Ostensibly following 16-year-old Pi as he drifts across the Pacific Ocean with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger onboard his boat, Yann Martel’s allegorical fantasy questions our perception of reality. With more than ten million sales worldwide, the novel also inspired award-winning film and stage adaptations.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012)

Hilary Mantel is one of four writers to have won the Booker Prize twice, and the first to win with two books from the same trilogy. Wolf Hall has been translated into 41 languages and this second instalment in the series sees Thomas Cromwell, now Henry VIII’s chief minister, tasked with engineering the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)

When the 2018 Booker Prize went to Anna Burns, it was the first time a Northern Irish writer had won. Set in a city based on Belfast during the Troubles, her satirical novel features a teenager who attracts the unwanted attention of a paramilitary and has to fend off the rumours ignited by his behaviour as well as his threats.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

The first black woman to win the Booker Prize, Bernadine Evaristo writes across many genres and frequently bases her work on her interest in the African diaspora. This novel explores the lives of 12 characters with different cultural backgrounds, most of whom are black women, to voice the experiences of those who often go unheard.

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