The Booker's Big Bang: The Booker Prize, Which Will Be Awarded on 14 October, Is 40 Years Old, but It Wasn't Always the 600lb Gorilla of Literary Prizes. John Sutherland Recalls How a Demure Award Came to Embrace the Values of the Thatcherite Eighties

Article excerpt

Booker is 40. It now ranks as Britain's second oldest national fiction prize. Pride of place in that league goes to the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, an annual award in the gift of the Regius Professor of English at Edinburgh University. That department plausibly claims to be the first of its kind anywhere, which gives the prize--the first of its kind in Britain--a double lustre. Who was James Tait Black? Don't ask. I've looked it up myself and always forget--a Scottish publisher, I believe, of whom confusingly many were surnamed Black. He was probably the first something.

The JIB was set up in 1919 and duly picked a dud--The Secret City, Hugh Walpole's novel about the ongoing Russian Revolution. Amends were made the following year with D H Lawrence's The Lost Girl. The character of the JTB over the decades after its foundation was established by the long-serving Herbert J C Grierson, the greatest Sir Walter Scott scholar of his day. The JTB, like HJCG, was "solid".

Unlike its English rival, the JTB is not a house-hold name--not even in bookish houses (by Waterstone's reckoning, that means one where 12 books a year are consumed). Every literate citizen whose reading has taken them beyond Key Stage Four of the National Curriculum will know about the Booker ("Man Booker" since 2002, when the financial slack was taken up by a friendly hedge fund). Like the Cup Final and the Grand National, the announcement in October is an annual event. Barring cataclysm, it rates top place on the morning bulletins. Jim Naughtie would not have it otherwise. It's big news.

Booker is also one of the mighty engines of the 21st-century book trade. Where the "quality" or "literary" novel is concerned, it is the mightiest such engine. Booker forges international name-recognition and makes the lucky author (and, yes, luck does come into it) rich. Even those only long and shortlisted bloom under the golden shower.

Why is the Booker such a literary kingmaker and its venerable Scottish rival not? The JTB makes equally sagacious selections. In 2005, the year John Banville's The Sea won the Booker, the JTB went for Ian McEwan's Saturday. You can see the 80-year record of the Scottish prize on its Edinburgh University website, www.englit.ed.ac.uk/jtbwins.htm. The JTB's record stands up well. Better than Booker in its more wayward years. Senior Scottish professors are anything but skittish.

Daringly, JTB will nowadays admit the occasional American contender. In 2006, the year in which Kiran Desai won the Man Booker with The Inheritance of Loss, Cormac McCarthy's The Road took the JTB. Everyone has his own crystal ball, and none is reliable. But I would guess that, a hundred years from now, the verdict of posterity may lean JTB's way. We'll never know.

Much as history may approve its choices, my guess is that the verdict of the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres (to give it its full title) moves few volumes off the shelves. Once Alex Salmond nationalises JTB and makes only authors who wear tartan underwear eligible--who knows? Stand by, Ian Rankin.

Who actually originated the Booker Prize is moot. One claimant (he asserts the claim persuasively in his 2005 autobiography) is Tom Maschler. The wunderkind of British publishers in the 1960s and 1970s, Maschler ran Jonathan Cape in its golden years. It would gild the London book world generally, Maschler thought, to adorn it with something like the Goncourt Prize.

The Goncourt is a high-prestige award. None higher. It disdains lucre and everything to do with trade: that "British shopkeeper" ethos which Napoleon scorned from the other side of the Channel. The cash value of the Goncourt is a risible [euro]10. Abandon commerce, all ye who enter here, that paltry coinage proclaims.

The Goncourt "academy" comprises ten long-standing, regularly convening judges. They are all distinguished figures in the literary world--like the "immortals" of the Academie Francaise. …