Its knack for creating tension and controversy has helped it remain an energising force in publishing for more than 50 years – but how do writers, publishers and judges cope with the annual agony of the Booker?
Just after 7.20pm on 20 October 1981, the 100 or so guests for the Booker prize ceremony sat down under the oak panelling of the Stationers’ Hall in the City of London. Dinner was mousse of avocado and spiced mushrooms, goujons of sole, breast of pheasant Souvaroff, black cherry pancake and hazelnut bombe. The menu’s vaguely fashionable ingredients (avocado!) announced the year’s prize as at least tentatively modern. (Back in 1975, there had been la tortue verte en tasse (green turtle soup), a dish from another age altogether.) Among the guests were prominent figures, then and now, of London’s cultural scene: Joan Bakewell, Alan Yentob, Claire Tomalin. The seating plan had been kept flexible in case Italo Calvino declared himself available at the last moment.
It was the year BBC began regular live TV coverage of the Booker prize, which was as fundamental to its fame, through the great era of terrestrial television, as the carefully encouraged scandals that regularly detonated around it. The year before, Anthony Burgess had demanded to know the result in advance, saying he would refuse to attend if William Golding had won – which he had. The prize’s administrator, Martyn Goff, leaked the story, and Burgess’s literary flounce made for gleeful headlines. Over Goff’s 34 years in charge, many more semi-accurate snippets from the judging room were let slip. “I was somewhat dismayed to find that purposive, often very misleading, leaking was going on,” Hilary Mantel, a judge in 1990, told me. It was by such steps that the Booker became not just a book prize, but a heady tangle of arguments, controversy and speculation: a cultural institution.