They're not your average readers

October 6, 2006

In the Booker Prize's early days, it was suggested that 'the odd film star' join the panel. Today's judges are far more highbrow, Sharon Norris discovers

The Man Booker Prize ceremony takes place next week in London's Guildhall with a more conspicuous female presence than usual. Four of the six shortlisted novels are written by women, and three of the five judges are female, including the chair, Hermione Lee. Remarkably, given the statistics - just over a third of all shortlisted books have been written by women, and there have been only seven female chairs of the judging panels (of 38) - Lee already has experience of judging the Booker. In 1981, she sat on the panel that awarded the prize to a then little-known Salman Rushdie. But if Lee's current role and previous record are unusual given her gender, her credentials in one area more closely fit a pattern long evident in the Booker.

In 1969, when the prize was first awarded, two of the five judges (Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender)were academics, as were two of the shortlisted authors - one of whom, Iris Murdoch, went on to win the prize in 1978. The unofficial rules governing the composition of judging panels seem to have been laid down in the early days of the Booker by the 1969 chair, W. L. Webb, then literary editor of The Guardian .

It could all have been so different. In a 1993 article, Webb, who has since died, noted that the literary adviser to Booker McConnell (which originally sponsored the prize), Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, had wanted "a leavening of showbiz characters... the odd film star or a couple of Rolling Stones".

But Webb had insisted on "judges with real literary authority". Since 1969, this has been construed as meaning a high number of academics. This year, in addition to Lee, the judging panel includes another academic and writer, Simon Armitage, while one of the shortlisted authors, Sarah Waters, formerly taught at the Open University.

Just under 40 per cent of those who have chaired Booker judging panels have been academics. On the surface, this seems fair enough - if anyone should know what makes a good book, surely it is a literary academic. Also, from a sponsor's point of view, to maximise the prestige gained from financing such an event, it makes sense to involve top people from the relevant field. With refreshing modesty, however, Lee - Goldsmiths' professor of English literature at Oxford University and a professorial fellow at New College - says: "I certainly don't think of myself as a heavyweight."

Not all academics associated with the prize have been literature specialists. In 1984, the judges were chaired by Richard Cobb, a historian; in 1978, the chair was the philosopher A. J. Ayer. Nevertheless, the inference is that academics know better than the ordinary reader when it comes to assessing fiction - or at least the sort of literary fiction that the Booker purports to reward.

The organisers did make a concession of sorts to the ordinary reader in 1976 when they introduced a new category of judge - the "man in the street". However, as judges in this category subsequently included the actress Joanna Lumley, the wife of a former prime minister and several MPs, it seems that the location of the notional street in question was Chelsea rather than Swindon.

It is not just among the judges that there has been a preponderance of dons. A substantial number of shortlisted authors and several prizewinners have been academics in a previous (or parallel) life. Among these have been Kingsley Amis, A. S. Byatt and two-time winner J. M. Coetzee. To a degree, this is understandable: who could be more likely to know the "rules" of literary fiction than those who teach it? Less obvious is why both the judging panels and shortlists have contained such a disproportionately high level of Oxbridge graduates.

During the 1980s, another influential group arose from the combined ranks of the judges and shortlisted authors. This comprised people who had connections with the University of East Anglia's MA course in creative writing - which at that time was supervised by Malcolm Bradbury, himself a Booker-shortlisted author. The UEA link was especially apparent in 1989, when former MA student Kazuo Ishiguro won the prize. Also on that year's shortlist was Rose Tremain, who had been a judge the year before and who, together with two of the 1989 judges, taught on the MA course. Furthermore, the judges that year were chaired by David Lodge, former Henfield writing fellow at UEA and previously a shortlisted author. Also, by 1989 the Booker management committee included Bradbury.

While the UEA link remains important, this "new Establishment" has continued to exist in tandem with the old one, and although the percentage of Oxbridge-educated winners and shortlisted authors has fallen since 1990, the level of Oxbridge-educated judges has remained relatively constant, and even risen recently. Three of this year's five judges, including Lee, attended Oxbridge, as did one shortlisted author.

There are implications in all of this - not least for academics, whose involvement with the prize highlights confusion over its cultural identity.

The Oxbridge bias in particular lays the organisers open to charges of elitism. Conversely, those literary academics who associate themselves with a popular cultural event such as the Man Booker risk being accused of trivialising literature. Lee refutes this. "I haven't had any sense among Oxford colleagues or friends who teach elsewhere that they think I'm trivialising what I do," she says. "I've always believed that the conversations you should have with ordinary people about books are the same as those you'd have with students."

But she is less forthcoming on the issue of whether she and others like her could be undermining the status of academics as a whole. Asked about this, she initially offers a sharp "No!" before adding mischievously, "It's not as if I've gone into the Big Brother house." Besides, she argues, although the Booker has elements of popular culture in the television coverage of the ceremony and the bookies' odds on the shortlisted authors, it is not popular culture as such - because it deals with literary fiction rather than genre novels and because the judging process is "serious and committed".

One would have to be committed. With more than a hundred books (112 this year) to get through in six months, one wonders what academic would be mad enough - or have time enough - to embark on such a venture. Lee acknowledges that she was able to accept the invitation to be chair only because she had just finished writing a book.

Why, then, do academics do it?

It is unlikely to be for the money. The fee involved is a mere £5,000 plus expenses - £7,500 for the chair. It could be that some wish to enhance their reputation - but, as noted, and notwithstanding Lee's experience, this could, theoretically, work the other way. Besides, most academics who judge the Booker are at the top of their game.

It is surely not out of the question that at least some take part because they want to create a space for broader discussion of literature. To the extent that the Man Booker operates on the fringes of popular culture, it offers the possibility for a wider public engagement with literature and with the issues that literary fiction grapples with. At least, that is the theory. One wonders what Leavis would have made of it all.

Sharon Norris is a writer and academic. She teaches at Greenwich University.

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