C'mon, Man! The Booker's biggest controversies

The prestigious Man Booker Prize is awarded on 25 Oct, with Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project an unexpected but deserving bookie's tip. In preparation, we look at the most controversial wins and near misses in the prize's history

Feature by Jonny Sweet | 17 Oct 2016
  • Booker Prize

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is certainly no stranger to controversy. Year after year, every critic and his dog has an axe to grind over this omission and a chip to shoulder about that inclusion.

In 2016, most of the heat has fallen onto the shoulders of Graeme Macrae Burnet, who has had the temerity to creep onto the six-man shortlist with the innovative whydunnit His Bloody Project. The size of Saraband, the two-man publishing outfit behind Macrae Burnet’s novel, has left some commentators spluttering into their Earl Grey, while certain media outlets have sneered disparagingly at the 'second-rate crime fiction' that has displaced other, apparently more worthy candidates. In particular, many have taken to bewailing the omission of two-time winner J. M. Coetzee.

Such snobbery and rancour are par for the course when it comes to the Booker, and though the Guardian cedes that this year's line-up is 'determinedly unstarry', it hails the judges’ decision to champion new and previously unsung heroes of the world of fiction. After all, isn’t celebrating genuine literary talent wherever it is found what accolades like this are all about?

Whether or not Macrae Burnet will upset the applecart even further remains to be seen. The fact it has outsold all expectations and its shortlist rivals is a prize in itself. But with critics like Anthony Cummins of the Telegraph shooting down half the playing field before we even get anywhere near to a verdict, there’s a perverse pleasure to be found in the perceived importance of everyone’s opinion, as well as a genuine feeling of uncertainty as to who will actually be declared the winner in a month’s time.

With this anticipation ripening nicely, here’s a nostalgic look back at some of the biggest shocks from the Booker’s back catalogue – both on the winning and the losing side of the finish line.

The dead certs who fell at the final hurdle

2001 – Ian McEwan – Atonement
Though McEwan scooped the gong for his 1998 novel Amsterdam, his follow-up three years later is seen by many fans as his finest work to date. As such, it came as something of a surprise to learn that the challenge of Atonement was swatted away by the lesser-fancied True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. Historical fiction has always been a darling of the Booker judging panel, but even so, McEwan’s tale of the devastating repercussions of an innocent childhood mistake has been sucker-punching readers since day one – even if it didn’t quite land a clean blow with the Booker.

2004 – David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Having been nominated for his sophomore novel number9dream in 2001, it seemed almost a certainty that Mitchell’s sprawling, ambitious opus Cloud Atlas would take the title three years down the line. However, despite the humour, humanity and impressive design of the novel, it was bested at the death by Alan Hollinghurst’s In the Line of Beauty. Exploring the themes of hypocrisy and homosexuality among the privileged classes, Hollinghurst’s work certainly helped to break new ground with its full and frank depiction of sexuality and built upon his unsuccessful shortlist nomination ten years previously.

2005 – Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go
This spot could theoretically have been held by almost anyone in the 2005 line-up, such was the strength and depth of the candidates that particular year. As well as Julian Barnes’ fantastic insight into the private life and political leanings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with Arthur & George, 2005 was also the year of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, itself the subject of much critical acclaim. However, the biggest also-ran that year (in this humble opinion) was Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, who had waltzed off with the prize back in 1989 with The Remains of the Day and could well have done so again. In the event, none of the above claimed the prestigious prize – see below for the eventual winner.

The straight out of left field winners

2005 – John Banville – The Sea
In that most competitive of years, the Booker was eventually claimed by John Banville with his 18th novel, The Sea. There was a delicious symmetry and justice in the award, since Banville had been previously nominated 16 years earlier for The Book of Evidence but had lost out to Ishiguro. Despite this, the media were unconvinced by the decision, with The Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin claiming it as 'possibly the most perverse decision in the history of the award'. Unfazed by the criticism, Banville quipped: "If they give me the bloody prize, why can't they say nice things about me?"

1994 – James Kelman – How Late it Was, How Late
In 1993, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was omitted from the final shortlist at the behest of two judges, who threatened to throw all of their toys from the pram if it made the cut. It was quite a surprise, then, when just year later a similarly expletive-laden novel by a Scottish author not only wormed its way into the final six, but actually stormed off with the big prize itself. The incident did not go unnoticed or unprotested – judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger flounced off the panel at the announcement of the verdict with a final parting shot of "frankly, it's crap." Meanwhile, Times journalist Simon Jenkins poured similar scorn on the decision and on Kelman himself, calling one “an act of literary vandalism” and the other “an illiterate savage”. The controversy is one Kelman feels has affected the reception of his work to this day.

2012 – Hilary Mantel – Bring Up the Bodies
Okay, okay, so Mantel is hardly a left-field victor, having won the award three years previously with Wolf Hall. However, it’s this very win which makes the second accolade implausible; Bring Up the Bodies is the second in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy… and with one judge using that very reason as an excuse for discounting Coetzee this time around, it hardly seems fair on the rest of the playing field that Mantel repeated the trick twice. It’s the literary equivalent of The Godfather: Part II or Lord of the Rings: Return of the King winning Best Picture at the Oscars, which would never happen… wait, what?

Regardless of the final outcome on 25 October, the six nominees should be proud of their ascension to the last interview stage – indeed, Burnet has already confessed that making the shortlist “felt like a win.” Whether or not another shock is on the cards remains to be seen… but here’s hoping, if only for the self-righteous vitriol and higher-brow-than-thou hand-wringing which would inevitably ensue. Best of luck to all on the shortlist.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction will be awarded on the evening of 25 Oct http://themanbookerprize.com