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Alterna-Booker—Different Prize, Same Antics

Hilary Mantel has won the Man Booker prize for a second time, and, as far as we know, no behind-the-scenes wrangling led to her victory. But it wouldn’t have been surprising if some squabbles had taken place. The Booker has always been unusually contentious. So contentious, in fact, that an alternative prize—the “Not the Booker”—was initiated in 2009 by The Guardian to poke fun at the internecine debates and offer a more open contest. At least that was the plan. Not the Booker has actually become Not So Different From The Booker.

Despite its illustrious roster of winners (English Patient, Midnight’s Children, Life and Times of Michael K), politicking among Booker judges is often deemed the surest route to victory. (See The Guardian’s 2008 account of the first forty years of disputes among the judging panel.) In one instance, Kingsley Amis’s novel ended up on the shortlist thanks to the lobbying of judge Elizabeth Jane Howard—his wife. “In the final round, the jury deliberations, there are all kinds of compromises that have to be made,” said Sam Jordison, who has covered the Prize for The Guardian; “hissy fits and temper tantrums are notoriously thrown.”

“Not the Booker” is an honor that is, in practical terms, entirely theoretical. (In terms of publicity, it’s not so theoretical.) The governing concept is transparency—a contrast to the veiled machinations ostensibly behind the Booker: anyone can nominate a favorite book of the year, then the readers winnow the very-very long list down to a shortlist, then pick a single winner. When first announcing the prize, Jordison asked readers, “Why should, say, [BBC presenter] James Naughtie be judging this year’s prize? Are they really better judges than you or I?” The prize, Jordison told me, “is a mug from the offices of The Guardian. It has ‘The Guardian’ written on it. These mugs were produced ten years ago.”

But some two months later, when the first prize was announced (it went to Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, a novel about Soviet-era Tblisi), The Guardian had to apologize to its readers for what appeared to be back-room maneuvering (a rush of votes came at the same time, for the same candidate). Mr. Dasgupta still won his mug, though.

This year was no different: robust literary discussion was matched by accusations of undue politicking. Though certain safeguards exist (voters are supposed to provide their own reviews of the books they are endorsing), one prolific commenter took the system to task, citing numerous violations; the public vote would be subject to “the social-media equivalent of politicians bundling voters into their cars and driving them to the polling station before closing,” he wrote. Shortlisted author Stephen May subtly cast aspersions on fellow shortlisters with a five-paragraph comment on why he wouldn’t be campaigning for votes (as other shortlisters did); buttering up his publishers to vote for him made him feel a “bit grubby. Like I needed a wash.”

Ewan Morrison, whose Tales from the Mall won the final prize this year with 106 votes, a massive 41 votes ahead of his nearest challenger, felt no such anxiety. The author e-mailed friends and colleagues asking for their votes, playing up his underdog status. (He’s published by a Scottish indie press.) Other contestants felt similarly free to pursue the prize. J.W. Ironmonger, who came in third place for his book The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder, told me via e-mail “Of course I campaigned. Probably not hard enough.” A.J. Kirby, whose book Paint the Town Red ended up in sixth place, said that he encouraged friends to push him to the shortlist. “Not many writers can include 'Nominated for the Not the Booker prize' on their covers, can they?”

In short, the Not the Booker has begun to look quite a bit like the Booker—or at least like we might imagine those backstage negotiations. Indeed, the hopefuls have more famous precursors, those who engaged in their own form of campaigning—Anthony Burgess threatened to boycott the Booker celebration if he did not win, which he did not—or played up their underdog appeal—Keri Hulme accepted her Booker in Maori tribal dress. Two years after winning for Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie didn’t repeat with Shame and made his displeasure clear to judge Fay Weldon; he hasn’t won since. Plus, even to get a book considered for the Booker means you have someone politicking on your behalf: as Jordison pointed out, many Booker honorees have been submitted by their publishers, who are necessarily ignoring other worthy picks.

The resemblance between the two prizes only continued when Morrison explained, prior to winning, his plan: next year, he wrote in his e-mail to his constituents, he would ask that the prize-givers “get a panel of people who understand and study books to be the judges.” In other words, to ensure that the prize won’t be open to the madding crowd. So much for literary democracy.

Daniel D’Addario is a reporter for The New York Observer who has also written for Slate, Newsweek, and Out. He tweets at @DPD_