50 Items for 50 Years - Judging the Prizes


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.

29 July 1971

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.

1 November 1985

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'!


The 1989 sexism row

In 1989, the literary world expressed surprise when Martin Amis's '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!

25 September 1991

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'.