Booker's Prize Headache

Article excerpt

Once again this year, the Booker Prize surely satisfies its administrator's taste for a touch of scandal. But where is the connection with the Booker corporation's cash-and-carry warehouses, its core business? Hard-headed chief executive Stuart Rose is looking for better returns on the literary investment, as Al Senter reports

Now that the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is with us once again, so in turn it must be time for Britain's annual literary bitchfest, the Booker prize. Still the country's premier artistic prize, amid a proliferation of literary kudos, the Booker will be awarded on 25 October, in the gracious surroundings of London's Guildhall, to 'the best novel in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen and published in the UK'.

Martyn Goff, the prize administrator, has been watching over the judges' deliberations since the Booker's inception in 1973. No slouch at stirring up what he refers to as 'the right sort of scandal' for the sake of publicity, the wily Goff seems philosophical about the controversy that has dogged the prize almost since its inception. Early on, there was John Berger's denunciation of the parent Booker corporation over alleged maltreatment of its workers in the Caribbean, and his vow to give the Black Panthers half of his [pounds]5,000 prize - making one wonder if the sponsor would want to continue. More recently, in 1991, a public dispute between Booker's chairman Jeremy Treglown and prize judge Nicholas Mosley, leading to Mosley's resignation, satisfied Goff's conditions for the right sort of scandal. 'People resigning on matters of principle is good.' This year the pageant got off to a good start when the confidentiality of the long-list - the early stage of selection - appeared to be breached. The Evening Standard's diary page seemed to know who was in with a chance - 'Brookner and Rushdie make Booker list,' it claimed. Vikram Seth and Roddy Doyle were there, too, but Lord Bragg wasn't. Who leaked the 'pseudo-list'? There were those who thought it was Goff himself.

Booker has taken a somewhat indulgent view of the pot-shots that have peppered the prize over the years, behaving rather like a benign nanny watching over her quarrelsome charges. The quality of the shortlists, the judges and the winners has been constantly called into question as the Booker competition provides a perfect opportunity for the settling of scores and the maintenance of artistic and personal feuds. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold and served up on the Booker menu. More recently, however, television coverage has included rampant rudeness and wholesale slagging off of entire shortlists.

Booker's patience with the unruly and ungrateful literati may not be inexhaustible. No longer is the prize insulated from the cold winds of financial reality that have howled over the parent company. The past couple of years have been little short of calamitous for the established firm whose origins lay in colonial sugar production. Following an ill-judged expansion in the mid-'90s, Booker's share price tumbled, its chief executive departed in unseemly circumstances, and there was a fire-sale of its once prized agribusiness interests. Potential takeover candidates went away shaking their heads after a look at the books.

Why a food distribution business should have had such literary associations in its portfolio as the Agatha Christie estate, sold off in 1998, would have baffled even Hercule Poirot. Still more confusing has been the virtual invisibility of Booker, the company, to the outside world. There has never been an obvious connection between the would-be highbrow literature of the Islington and Hampstead chatterati and the cash-and-carry warehouses on grim industrial estates that make up Booker's core business.

Jonathan Taylor, former chairman and CEO of Booker and now chairman of the Booker Prize Management Committee, will have none of this. …