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And they’re off...

And they’re off...

Of course, the two Booker Prizes never sleep – in the quieter periods of the Booker Prize the International Prize is cranking up and vice versa: it’s a 365-days-a-year operation. This year, however, thanks to the announcement of the Booker Prize coming a month later than usual, its window of breathe out, two, three, four… is shorter than ever. Hot on the heels of Douglas Stuart being declared the 2020 winner, the judges for the 2021 prize have just been revealed. They make an impressive and balanced bunch: the panel will be chaired by the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff, and numbers the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the actor Natascha McElhone, the double Booker Prize shortlistee Chigozie Obioma, and the Financial Times journalist Horatia Harrod as its other members. If they think 2020 has been a bewildering year then their Booker duties will mean 2021 is abnormal too – though, hopefully, in a rather more positive way.

The “Booker bounce” – the sales surge that accompanies the revealing of a new Booker Prize winner – has been as springy as ever this year. The day after the ceremony, Douglas Stuart’s UK publisher, Picador, revealed that to meet demand it was producing 150,000 extra copies of Shuggie Bain. The novel has now sold 80,000 copies in the UK and counting; indeed, in the week after the announcement it sold more than 25,000 copies in the UK alone, a 1,900 per cent increase on the week before. So instantaneous was the book’s take-up that Shuggie Bain topped Amazon’s Best Sellers list within hours of the announcement and has hit Number 1 in The Times and the LA Times bestseller lists, Number 2 in The Sunday Times bestseller list, and Number 3 in The New York Times bestseller list. With Christmas in touching distance, just how high the bounce will be remains to be seen, but it keeps on heading for the stars.

It was often asked why John le Carré never won the Booker Prize. After all, the espionage author, who died on 12 December, wrote novels that have stood the test of time and entered the national psyche. For example, his most celebrated book, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was published in 1974 and the Booker Prize that year was split between Nadine Gordimer (The Conversationalist) and Stanley Middleton (Holiday); could he have won? It was something Le Carré himself made sure we never knew. Some commentators have assumed that his non-appearance on prize shortlists was to do with snobbery about genre fiction but it was the author who wanted nothing to do with prizes. In 2011, he was nominated for the Booker Prize for Our Kind of Traitor and it took him all of 45 minutes for his statement to appear withdrawing the nomination. Le Carré had nothing against the Booker Prize itself but he was simply a resolute non-joiner and stuck to his principles. So he remains one of the prize’s great what-ifs?

Although he didn’t mention Le Carré, Lee Child, one of this year’s Booker Prize judges, has been talking about the traditional perception-misconception of genre fiction. “Popular literature, mass market commercial literature, what I call pulp or hack, is a very skilful medium,” he said. “It is very difficult to do well. I think that people are finally beginning to understand that. We are not idiots. There is a lot of hidden stuff that you don’t necessarily see. It is the furthest possible thing from cranking it out.” Reflecting on his Booker Prize experience he said that, whatever style of book, we are essentially “in the same river working towards the same goal”. What Child really takes issue with is literary snobbery: “Reading is a wonderful thing and to ever suggest to anyone that what they are reading is silly and not worth it I think is a terrible disservice to the idea of reading.” Best not to argue with the author of the Jack Reacher novels.

The Booker Prize can rest easy at last, it has finally made it...  The prize features in a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 comedy starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Austen? In it, French plays Florence Ransom, a literary novelist best-known – ta da – for her Booker Prize winning Pennant Days. Saunders plays her estranged sister Selina Mountjoy, a glamorous movie star. Then stuff happens. Pennant Days is rather a good title. Time for some bright novelist to turn the fictional fiction into fact perhaps.