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The Man Booker - triumph or disaster?

17 October 2005

The result of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction this week was a surprise to everyone. In a year when the heavy hitters were there in force, the Prize has gone to a relatively obscure Irish writer who was first named as a Booker contender in 1989. His book, The Sea, was the one which was selling least well from all those on the shortlist. Booksellers were disappointed that the Prize did not go to the distinguished favourite Julian Barnes, the hugely accomplished Kazuo Ishiguro or the glamorous young contender Zadie Smith.

It's the first time an Irish writer has won the Booker since Roddy Doyle in 1993. John Banville said: 'One of the things about the Booker is, it's very good for publishing. Literary publishers can go to their money men and say, look, good literary publishing can make money too.' To support this, Picador has already reprinted 50,000 copies of the book and there has been a 1900% increase in its sales at Waterstone's.

Clearly the judges had a hard time choosing the winner and it is rumoured that the chair, Professor John Sutherland, had to use his casting vote. He said: 'it was an extraordinarily closely contested last round - the judges felt the level of the shortlisted novels was as high as it can ever have been.' He called The Sea 'a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected. It is an incredibly written piece of work if very melancholy. But if you can't tune into it, it won't work for you.'

The book is not universally admired. In an extraordinarily strongly worded attack, Boyd Tonkin, the Literary Editor of the Independent, said: 'Yesterday the Man Booker judges made possibly the worst, certainly the most perverse, and perhaps the most indefensible choice in the 36-year history of the contest. By choosing John Banville's The Sea, they selected an icy and over-controlled exercise in coterie aestheticism ahead of a shortlist, and a long list, packed with a plenitude of riches and delights.'

But of course there's really no right and wrong relating to judging panels' choice of winners. In the end they are simply a group of people with individual views, and, whatever anyone else thinks, it is entirely unpredictable what the outcome of the judging process will be. Anyone who's ever judged a literary prize knows this is true. There's no doubt though that over the years the Booker Prize has established an international reputation and that it really does sell books. So perhaps John Banville's comment highlights the most important element of all this - the massive public interest in the Man Booker Prize - and the huge publicity and sales it generates for literary fiction.