50 years of the Booker Prize in 50 items
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the (Man) Booker Prize in 2018, we have digitised 50 items from the Booker Prize Archive to guide you through the history of Britain's most prestigious literary award.
An idea is born
The beginning of the Prize can be traced back to correspondence between publisher Tom Maschler and foodservice wholesaler Booker McConnell. The earliest item in the Archive is a proposal from Maschler requesting funding from Booker McConnell to establish a new literary prize that will become 'by far the most important literary award in this country'.
What's in a name?
Choosing a name can be a tricky business, and there were several options on the table including the Bucklersbury Prize - named after Bucklersbury House, the location of Booker's Head Office. However, the appropriateness of the literary-sounding Booker name in the end won out over concerns about the longevity of the company's sponsorship.
Rules, rules, rules
Over the years the Prize rules have changed many times with regard to the eligibility of novels, the number of submissions, the judging process, and the prize money. See how the rules for the 1969 and the 2018 prize years compare.
See the draft rules for the Booker Prize.
See the rules of the Booker Prize.
A literary muse
A trophy was awarded in the first few years of the prize, and was featured dramatically on the publicity material for the first year with flames emerging from the upheld bowl; but the practice dwindled and a new trophy wasn't introduced until the 40th anniversary year.
The award ceremony
The award ceremony has taken place at a number of different venues over the years including Drapers Hall, Claridge's, Guildhall, the Royal Horticultural Halls, and the British Library. Here are a few examples of invitations to the prestigious event.
A straight talking Dame
Dame Rebecca West was the prize's first female judge and first judge to serve twice (1969 and 1970). The Archive contains her notes on the submitted novels for the two years, some of which are painfully honest! Here is one example from 1970.
Something to write for
The first prize was awarded to author and Controller of the BBC's Third Programme, P. H. Newby for his novel 'Something to Answer For'. In the Archive is a copy of the cheque awarded to Newby by Dame Rebecca West.
A lack of sympathy
In addition to the Naipaul eligibility crisis, 1971 saw one of the judges resign halfway through the process. Malcolm Muggeridge decided he could not continue as a judge due to his 'lack of sympathy' with the novels submitted for the prize, the majority of which he considered pornographic. He was replaced by novelist Philip Toynbee.
A novel identity crisis
In 1971 the judges debated whether V. S. Naipaul's novel 'In a Free State' was a novel or a collection of short stories. Three of the judges felt that the book was eligible - John Gross, Antonia Fraser, and Philip Toynbee - but the other two judges, John Fowles and Saul Bellow did not. In the end the majority ruled and the book was pronounced the winner.
Biting the hand?
In 1972 John Berger used his acceptance speech to criticise the sponsor's involvement in the cane sugar industry in Guyana, and vowed to give half the prize money to the Black Panther movement. An internal memo shows Booker's unruffled response.
Another bite of the hand!
The year after John Berger's controversial acceptance speech, J. G. Farrell also used his speech to criticise the sponsor - announcing that he was 'no more enamoured of capitalism than my predecessor'. By this time, Booker appears to be taking such comments in their stride and with little offence as the Archive shows he was invited to a post-victory dinner with the sponsor.
Money, Money Money
The prize money was initially £5,000. This was doubled in 1978, and a memo from the Archive shows how the sponsor weighed up the pros and cons of increasing the money. The prize was increased by a further £5,000 in 1984 and made it up to £21,000 before the Man Group, the new sponsors upped it to £50,000 in 2002.
In 1975 only two novels were deemed worthy enough by the judges to make the shortlist. Find out what those novels were in the shortlist press release.
If at first you don't succeed
Iris Murdoch is the most shortlisted author in the prize's history. She was shortlisted six times, and won in 1978. Here she is pictured with Chair of Judges Alfred Ayer and Booker Chairman Michael Caine.
Golding vs Burgess
1980 was the year that two literary heavyweights were pitted against each other in the shortlist - William Golding with his novel 'Rites of Passage', and Anthony Burgess with 'Earthly Powers'. Martyn Goff, the prize administrator of the time, recalls that Burgess insisted that would not attend the ceremony unless he was the winner. Goff had the unhappy job of telephoning him at the Savoy Hotel to tell him he hadn't won, and true to his word Burgess stayed put.
The Man Booker Prizes offer libraries a range of opportunities to get involved with the prize, and it all started it 1981 with a library display competition.
Booker on film
The award ceremony and dinner were first televised in 1981, and much planning went into it to make sure it went smoothly.
Faction vs fiction
In 1982, the winning novel, 'Schindler's Ark' by Thomas Keneally, was the subject of a great debate about whether it was a work of fact or fiction. Whichever it is, the decision to award it the prize stands, but you can check out the debate in the press cuttings and make up your own mind.
The pitfalls of using an autocue
In 1983 Chair of Judges Fay Weldon used an autocue to give her speech at the award ceremony. It was highly critical of the publishing industry and as Fay recalls, in an interview with the Sunday Herald, she was 'making this anti-publisher speech and calling them to order.
Well, usually in a speech like that, you say all of that first, and then in the last bit you say, 'But of course none of this applies to any of you here, who are all honourable, honourable people.' But, oddly enough, the unions, who I was supporting vigorously, were on a work to rule, and cut the power at 10 o'clock, and the boards went black, just before I got to the 'you are all honourable men' bit. And so because you are reading it, you don't know where you are, so I just sat down and said, 'That is really all I have to say.' So they didn't get that bit. And they were so incensed. And the head of the publishing union came over and hit my agent. It was a wonderful evening!'
The Archive has a transcript of the speech in full for those who would like to see how it ended.
A difference of opinion
In 1985, the prize was awarded to 'The Bone People' by Keri Hulme. However, not all the judges thought the book a worthy winner. Joanna Lumley, who was not able to attend the final judging session, sent her thoughts on the shortlisted novels to prize administrator Martyn Goff for consideration at the meeting. She considered the novel 'over-my-dead-body stuff' and 'its subject matter [child abuse] finally indefensible'. Following the announcement of the winner, Martyn Goff's thank you letter to Lumley confesses that he 'felt like donning riot gear' when writing to thank her, but ends with the hope that he can tempt her 'into some other piece of book prize judging'!
A thing of beauty
In 1991, the tradition of having specially designed bindings of the shortlisted novels created and awarded to the authors was born. Each year, a group of Designer Bookbinders create unique bindings that reflect the contents of the novels. The bindings are works of art and have been exhibited at various locations including the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
None of my favourites
In 1991, Nicholas Mosley resigned from the judging panel when none of his choices made the shortlist. In an article in the Times, Mosley claimed that 'the other four judges complained that my chosen books were novels of ideas, or novels in which characters were subservient to ideas'.
To Russia with books
The Booker Russian Novel Prize, awarded for the best work of fiction written in the Russian language, was launched in 1992. The prize was initially sponsored by Booker plc and administered locally by the British Council. Sponsorship of the prize was transferred in 1997 to United Distillers & Vintners (UDV), the spirits and wine arm of Diageo plc and owner of Smirnoff vodka, and the prize renamed the Smirnoff Booker Prize in 1999. In 2002 the Open Russia Foundation, founded by the YUKOS Oil Company, became the sponsor and the prize was renamed the Booker-Open Russia Prize. In 2006, sponsorship of the prize was transferred to the oil company BP, and in 2011 was transferred again to the Russian Telecom Equipment Company.
Can't choose, won't choose
Only twice has the prize been awarded to joint winners - in 1974 to Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton, and in 1992 to Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth - and twice appears to have been enough! The rules were changed in 1993 to allow only one winner.
See a copy of the rules.
A mushroom feast
In 1993, workers at Middlebrook Mushrooms (a subsidiary of Booker plc) made plans to protest about alleged unfair dismissal during the prize dinner. In response, Booker issued a press release two days before the award ceremony, and plans were made to get all the guests into the Guildhall as swiftly as possible.
The best of the best
Special prizes were created for the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the prize - the 'Booker of Bookers' and the 'Best of Booker' respectively. Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' won both, but it wasn't an easy victory - a press release announcing the 'Booker of Bookers' winner shows that the judges were torn between Rushdie and William Golding's 'Rites of Passage'.
The 1989 sexism row
In 1989, the literary world expressed surprise when Martin Amis’ 'London Fields' was not included on the Booker shortlist. It was not long before rumours emerged that the novel had been deemed too sexist by the two female judges, Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil, to deserve a place in the final six. Prize administrator Martyn Goff named Maggie Gee as the chief opponent of the novel (a summary of the judges' shortlist decisions in the Archive supports this claim) and reported that, despite a three-two majority in favour of the novel, the chair of judges David Lodge decided to take Amis out of the running.
Lodge’s decision to exclude the book is, however, still something of a mystery as he claimed at the time that he was ‘personally very sorry that it wasn’t shortlisted, because I admire it very greatly’. Martyn Goff, however, did offer the possible explanation that Lodge capitulated for fear that Gee would resign in protest if the book was shortlisted, an outcome that Goff admitted would have been considered great publicity for the prize!
A step back in time
At the 1993 Booker Prize dinner, Ion Trewin and Gillian Beer came up with the idea of holding a retrospective Booker-style competition at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and thus the 1984 Booker (and its later successors) was born. Take a look at the shortlist, which novel's your favourite?
All publicity is good publicity...
1994 was a bumper year for scandal and outrage: Chair of judges, Professor John Bayley, drew much criticism when he claimed that 'new fiction is at best ambitious and at worst pretentious'; the shortlist was deemed boring and compared to the sleeping pill 'Mogadon'; cries of nepotism rang out when the wife of Booker judge James Wood, Claire Messud, made the shortlist; the expletive heavy content of the winning novel divided critics; and judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger's made her dislike of the winning novel very public.
Booker on the web
In 1998 the prize took a promotional leap onto the world wide web. A website did already exist before 1998, but it appears to have been practically impossible to find. By the late 1990s the web had been identified as a way of promoting the prize, and this involved finding a more obvious url, registering the site with the popular search engines of the day, and linking to related sites.
The 1999 'feminist mafia' row
In 1999, the judges hit the headlines when Professor John Sutherland started a public slanging match by publishing an unflattering account of the conduct of his female fellow judges, and hinting at a gender split in the panel. The other judges strongly denied the accusations.
Shena Mackay and Natasha Walter wrote an open letter to The Guardian asserting that Sutherland had breached the trust of his fellow judges, and strayed into ‘pure fantasy’; Mackay adding later that ‘it was inevitable, given there were two women on the panel, that we would be cast in the role of a ‘feminist mafia’. Boyd Tonkin conceded that ‘to some extent there was a gender division’ but sided with Mackay and Walter, concluding ‘I think John just did not get what he wanted, which was Frayn’. Chair of judges, Gerald Kaufman, on the other hand, managed to see the funny side, and remarked that he was ‘greatly enjoying the fireworks that have broken out since the prizegiving.’
All my favourites
Prior to 2001, the judges had tended to create unofficial longlists that they could whittle down to create the shortlist. These longlists (as well as submission lists) are embargoed for 20 years in the Archive. However, in 2001, the decision was made to make the longlist public, allowing more books to get recognition.
Food for the mind, and food for the stomach
In 2001 celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay made an appearance at the award ceremony, serving up prawn cocktail, welsh beef, and apple and blackberry crumble.
See the menu on offer that night.
Who's paying for all this?
After 33 years of service, Booker (now owned by The Big Food Group), bowed out as sponsor of the prize, and the Man Group stepped up to fund the UK's most prestigious literary award, and the prize was renamed the Man Booker Prize.
The US vs the Commonwealth
With a change of sponsor came rumours that the prize would be opened up to the Americans, and debate about whether UK and Commonwealth authors could compete in such an expanded playing field. As a draft statement from the Archive shows, expansion of the prize was considered, but came initially in 2005 in the form of the Man Booker International Prize. Change did come eventually, however, and the Man Booker Prize rules of eligibility were amended to include authors of all nationalities in 2014.
The end of an era
Martyn Goff (1923-2015) became administrator to the prize in 1973 through his work with the National Book League (later Book Trust). He would liaise with the judges and the media, and helped raise the profile of the prize and of reading throughout his career. He retired from the prize in 2006 and was succeeded by Ion Trewin, who took on the role of Literary Director of the Prize.
The Man Booker International Prize was initially awarded every two years in recognition of the work of an author of any nationality whose work is available in English. The first prize was awarded in 2005. There was also a separate prize for translation into English, the winner of which is chosen by the winning author.
A new member of the family
The Man Asian Literary Prize, launched in 2007, is awarded to Asian novels that are unpublished in English, and is a joint project of the Man Group and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
A close friend of the family
Launched in 2007, The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is run with the support, as its mentor, of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi (DCT). See the first page of the proposal for an 'Arab Booker Prize'.
See the proposal for an Arab Booker Prize.
The big 4 0
The prize had celebrated its birthday a few times in the past (25th, 30th, 35th) but for its 40th, it went all out, with special promotional materials, a new trophy, and even a one-off prize - 'The Best of Booker' (won by Salman Rushdie, who also won the 25th anniversary 'Booker of Bookers' prize).
See the 40th anniversary booklet.
Haven't we met before?
Five authors have won the prize twice: J. G. Farrell (1973 and Lost Man Booker); J. M. Coetzee (1983 and 1999); Peter Carey (1988 and 2001); Margaret Atwood (2000 and 2019) and Hilary Mantel (2009 and 2012). Hilary Mantel won with the first two novels in her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell - the third made it onto the longlist in 2020.
An international change
In July 2015 it was announced that the Man Booker International Prize was to join with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The new prize would be awarded annually for a single book, translated into English and published in the UK, and the prize money would be split equally between the author and translator.
Waiting for royalty
The organisers of the prize invited HRH the Queen to the inaugural award ceremony - the invitation was declined. Finally, in 2015, royalty did attend, with HRH the Duchess of Cornwall presenting the prize to winning author Marlon James.
A fond farewell
Literary Editor and Publisher Ion Trewin's involvement with the prize began in 1974 as a member of the judging panel. He joined the Management Committee (later the Advisory Group) in 1989, and became the prize's Literary Director in 2006 following Martyn Goff's retirement. He was a well respected figure in the literary world and his death in 2015 was met with great sadness. The role of Literary Director of the prize passed to journalist and writer Gaby Wood.
See a photograph of Ion Trewin.
Keeping up with technology
Website - check, app - check, Twitter account - check, podcasts - check...
Filling the gap
The Lost Man Booker Prize was a one-off prize to honour books published in 1970 that were not considered for the prize due to a change in submission dates. It was awarded posthumously to J. G. Farrell for his novel 'Troubles'. The shortlist was chosen by Rachel Cooke, Katie Derham, and Tobias Hill. The winning book was voted for by the reading public via the Man Booker Prize website.
From bridesmaid to bride
The Man Booker Best of Beryl, was a special one-off prize created in honour of Beryl Bainbridge who died in 2010. The shortlist consisted of her five novels that has previously been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Judged by the reading public, the prize was awarded to her novel 'Master Georgie' (shortlisted in 1998).
Booker women in numbers
A few statistics: Over the past 49 years of the Booker Prize, 33% of winners and 38% of shortlisted authors have been women. 43% of judges have been women. Of the 17 female winners, 8 were from the UK, 2 from New Zealand, 2 from India, 1 from South Africa, 1 from Canada, 1 from Ireland, 2 had dual UK nationality (Germany and Ireland). Interestingly, increasing the number of female judges is no guarantee of an increase in the number of female authors shortlisted: in 1977 there was only one female judge but 4 out of 6 shortlisted authors were women; and in 1986 4 out of 5 judges were women, but only one female author was shortlisted.
The public image
The look of the Prize has changed many times over the years, as demonstrated by the publicity material held in the Archive.
For the record
Following a change of sponsor and the creation of the Booker Prize Foundation, a home was sought for the archive of the Booker Prize. Oxford Brookes University Library became the permanent home of the Booker Prize Archive in 2003, and has welcomed researchers from around the world who wish to use the wealth of archival resources that the collection contains.