Every year I am asked what the Man Booker controversy is going to be. The Bookseller, in calling on me to write about this year’s, has already identified five – and we’ve only reached the longlist stage - non–availability of some titles, the lack of women on the list, not enough Commonwealth writers, notable omissions, unusual inclusions.
One of the notable strengths of the Man Booker is in being a contemporaneous prize. It was one of the intentions of the founding fathers in 1969 that the prize would identify the very best in fiction that was freshly published, newly reviewed and on sale in the nation’s bookshops.
But that does not always make it easy. The Man Booker publishing year is October 1st to September 30th. Ever since we first published the official longlist in 2002 (it had previously been judiciously leaked by Martyn Goff, my predecessor) there have been late published titles, although rarely more than one or two a year. By some tweaking of schedules, publication dates have been brought forward to take advantage of the benefits of being longlisted. But this year’s fiction publishing season has seen a wealth of late published literary fiction: not all of it made the longlist, but five titles did.
Our rules are clear: within 10 days of the longlist being published publishers are obliged to make no fewer than 1,000 copies available. This year some publishers have been quick to admit that they failed to take into account this clause in our rules, even though they are long-established. In this the year when the Man Booker, by broadening its eligibility criteria has taken on even greater significance than in the past, we have tried to be helpful. In return they have all made strenuous efforts to meet these requirements.
Each year we look at our rules in the light of experience. Our advisory committee - which includes two publishers, two booksellers and one literary agent - will be asked later this year to see how our rules might be modified to ensure that such a situation does not happen again.
When commentators talk about specific books being left off the list, or the gender issue, or why certain countries have not perhaps had a good year, I always refer them back to the opening clause in the rules: the Man Booker prize "is awarded to the author of the best eligible full-length novel in the opinion of the judges." That is what matters.
We would not for a moment expect the judges to choose an equal number of male or female authors for the longlist simply to show gender balance. Nor would we expect nationality alone to be considered by the judges when they make their decisions. Also I always remind judges that they are judging the novel entered, not an author’s oeuvre or indeed comparing an entry to a previous work.
With judges reading 150 titles over seven months I have found these issues become blurred. The identities of authors increasingly cease to matter, as does gender and indeed the name of the publisher. The fact that judges may now read entries as downloads contributes to this blurring. Readers are more likely to notice on a print proof the author name and publisher, whereas once downloaded you are less likely to be aware of anything but the prose on the screen.
Once the longlist has been decided my test is to place the 13 titles in a pile and point out the male/female split or the fact that such and such a well known publisher has no titles this year. Judges are usually surprised by the results.
As for omissions and inclusions, few commentators have read the full entry list and in my experience tend to comment on how could the judges possibly omit such and such a novel only because they have heard of it or the author. As for unexpected inclusions it is part of the joy of the Man Booker prize that the judges discover hitherto unfamiliar but substantial talent. Among recent winners Eleanor Catton, Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy and Yann Martel spring to mind.
The imprimatur of the Man Booker has provided reading joy to millions and huge publishing success to the authors. No wonder the actions of the prize continue to attract worldwide attention and always at least one controversy.
Ion Trewin is literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation