Booker is good for your health. I was watching Howard Jacobson (68) in conversation with Peter Carey (67) and some junior members of the 2010 shortlist last week when I had one of those eureka moments. Booker and longevity are like Gilbert and Sullivan: indissoluble, symbiotic and comradely.
Consider the facts. With the exception of Kingsley Amis, who was drinking himself into an early grave long before The Old Devils took the prize, every winner since 1981 is still alive. Looking at the prize as a whole, those few Booker laureates, from 1969 to 2010, who have passed on to happier hunting grounds (William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Fitzgerald) did so at the end of long and productive lives. This prize, indeed, has rarely been shadowed by tragedy. Only poor JG Farrell, who won in 1973 with The Siege of Krishnapur, died in terrible circumstances, drowned off the coast of Ireland in a freak accident. He's the exception. Even 40-something years of shortlists gives little satisfaction to the grim reaper. Booker runners-up may have become forgotten, or unreadable, or crazy: but they are mostly still with us. Between 1991 and 2010, for instance, only Carol Shields, George Mackay Brown and the much lamented Beryl Bainbridge have joined the choir invisible.
Death is one of literature's traditional subjects. It says a lot for the National Health, or possibly postwar diet, that the old alliance between mortality and books should have been broken, at least in this rarefied arena. Away from Booker's ivory tower, it's business as usual. Who can ever forget George Orwell completing Nineteen Eighty-Four in the final stages of tuberculosis? "I wrote the book," declared Jack Kerouac of On the Road, "because we're all gonna die."
Historically, ill health and literature have been like ham and eggs and, because writers are involved, it was always a memorable union. "I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood," said Keats to a friend. "That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die." Almost everything Keats wrote was composed in the shadow of extinction.
Death has also dramatically changed a writer's prospects, eliminating competition, and honing his or her creative ambition. When Shakespeare came to London in the late 1580s, he could easily have met, in a single room, somewhere in Southwark, all the leading writers of the day: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Watson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, Thomas Kyd and John Lyly. By 1601, apart from Lyly, every one of these was dead – and Shakespeare was completing Hamlet.
McCrum's excellent piece in full at The Observer.