Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Lost Booker: a judge tells all
Forty years ago, 21 novels were missed for consideration for the Booker prize but justice is at last to be done. As a 'Lost Booker' judge Rachel Cooke has been immersed in, and often surprised by, the best literature of 1970
Rachel Cooke , The Observer, Sunday 28 March 2010

 I love Ian McEwan but his memory sometimes plays tricks on him. In a recent interview, the writer talked about his early work, setting his books in the context of what everyone else was doing. The novels of the late 1960s and early 1970s were, he said, polite, and a little dull. Hmm. I am not at all sure he is right about this.

 As it happens, I have just read 21 novels, all of which were published in 1970, and while a few could be described as polite, none was actively dull. Two – Bomber by Len Deighton and I'm the King of the Castle by Susan Hill – were so exciting, I read them at one sitting, and one – The Hand-Reared Boy by Brian Aldiss – so filthy, I read it with the door of my office closed, as if afraid of being caught. You want camp and agonised? Try A Domestic Animal by Francis King. Feminist and experimental? The Circle by Elaine Feinstein. Muscular and sweeping? The Vivisector by Patrick White. I could go on and on like this. I even liked – or at least it had its moments – Melvyn Bragg's sentimental tale of working-class life, A Place in England ("Ee, there's dignity in work, lad!"). Only one book left me completely cold, and that was A Little of What You Fancy by HE Bates. I've never been keen on the bucolic Ma and Pop Larkin, and their continually rising sap.

I read these books in my capacity as a judge of the Lost Booker prize. To cut a long story short, in 1971, two years after its birth, it was decided that the Booker would no longer be awarded retrospectively; it would be, as now, a prize for the best novel in the year of publication. At the same time, the date on which the award was made was also switched from April to November. Most novels published in 1970, then, were never considered for the prize. They were "lost". Was this an injustice? Yes, thought Peter Straus, the Booker's unofficial archivist, who first stumbled on the omission. A completist to his very bone marrow, Straus suggested that the situation be remedied with a one-off prize. Any novel published in the UK in 1970 and still in print would be considered, and the judges for the contest would, like the books, all be 40 years old. They would draw up a shortlist of six, and the public would then vote for the winner.

Rachel Cooke's full piece at The Observer.

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