The news that author and publisher Carmen Callil withdrew from the judging panel of the Man Booker International prize over its decision to honor Philip Roth with the award, did not surprise me at all. Her reason was that “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”
Unfortunately, stories like this are too common in the literary world. The controversy that surrounds these juried awards is always there. It’s only when one of the judges is brave enough to object or oppose the decision of the others that we become aware of it. In fact this has been going on since the early days of the Booker Prize, when it was still in its infancy.
In her book ‘John Fowles: A Life In Two Worlds’ Eileen Warburton writes;
‘Of all Tom Maschler’s scheme for enhancing the prestige and sales of British books, none was as important and successful as the establishment of the Booker Prize. In 1968 Maschler publicly argued the need for a juried literary prize for British fiction that would be an English counterpart to the French Prix Goncourt. “French experience had shown choice by jury to be disastrously dishonest method,” objected John Fowles. “Things like that wouldn’t happen in London,” retorted Maschler. The first award was made in 1969. In 1970 there was a minor argument about a collection of short stories by George Mackay Brown, and the rules were amended to read, in no less than three separate places, that the prize was for “the best full-length novel” published that year.
When John Fowles was chosen as one of the 1971 judges, his fellow judge Malcolm Muggeridge was so offended by the selections that he withdrew in mid-July. And when V. S. Naipaul’s ‘In a Free State’, a collection consisting of a novella, two short stories and a prologue and epilogue from the author’s travel journals, was awarded the Booker Prize, John Fowles objected to the eligibility of the book, since Naipul’s entry was not a “full-length novel”. He later referred to the award as “The Booker Prize Imbarglio” and henceforth he refused to allow his own books to be entered for any prizes. He refused to attend the Booker awards dinner and refused to cash the honorarium check sent him by the Booker committee for his services as a judge.’
In a similar story British writer John Le Carre has asked to be taken off the shortlist as he “doesn’t compete for literary awards.” He stated “I am enormously flattered to be named as a finalist of the 2011 Man Booker International prize. However, I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.”
I have written about the scandal surrounding Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize 2011, in my previous post.
Which makes me wonder. Most of these awards are chosen and debated by a panel of three judges. After more than forty years, don’t you think it’s about time to change all this? If as John Fowles put it, the French experience was dishonest, and it seems the English version was no better, then maybe readers should get to choose and vote for their best. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, aren’t our readers our biggest judges? After all, we writers write for our readers.