Blogger Martin Vovk explains why he set himself a Booker-themed reading challenge – and how the experience changed him 

Written by Martin Vovk

Publication date and time: Published

It’s late 2020, and we’re heading into a second lockdown. The novelty of working from home has passed, it’s no longer summer, and I’ve given up on ever making a decent sourdough loaf. I’m listlessly looking for a new project and determine that it’s going to somehow involve both reading and writing. Noting that my fiction reading of late has been in something of a rut, I seek inspiration in the annals of Booker Prize history, knowing that it’s an award that has honoured some of my favourite authors (Hollinghurst, Ishiguro) but that I’ve read only a handful of its many other winners. Where to start, though?  

A quick Google disappoints: I can’t find any authoritative-seeming lists (and I really love a list), and I glean little direction other than a nagging sense that I need to finally get around to reading Midnight’s Children. Frustrated and inspired at the same time, I’ve found my project: I shall read all of the Booker winners and then rank them.   

I set up a blog and am pleased with the easy-punning title Eyes on the Prize. To set it apart from your average book review blog, I add in a few novelty features – food and drink pairings (from ‘Cyprus Brandy, if you dare’, for P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For to neat JD and braai for Damon Galgut’s The Promise), extensive context for the year of release and fun facts around the Prize itself, as well as a list of ‘vanquished foes’ (AKA the other shortlisted books).  

Soon, I’m underway; Something to Answer For arrives in the post. I dive in, and I’m immediately pleased with my decision. The Booker’s first winner is a strange fever-dream of a read, like nothing I’ve read before (or since), and it’s followed by the equally delightful oddness of Bernice Rubens’ The Elected Member. The Seventies’ winners fly by in a haze of booze and/or large bodies of water (popular subject matter in those days) and any sense of doubt goes away as the prize seems to erupt into glorious technicolour with the arrival of Iris Murdoch’s magnificent The Sea, the Sea.  

Martin Vovk

I admit I’m not the world’s fastest reader, but even a challenge as daunting as this one is totally achievable with a bit of discipline. For me, this was helped a lot by having the blog and Instagram to account to – while my readership wasn’t huge, I still felt the ‘pressure’ of having to produce something new at least once a week, a schedule I generally kept to (although it was occasionally challenged by beasts like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries!)   

The community, particularly on Instagram, was a great motivator for keeping going, with lively feedback and discussion on every post. I should note that the feedback was almost always positive (Bookstagram is surely the loveliest of all the internet niches!) – though there are certainly books in the Booker canon that can provoke fierce debate, whether for their content (such as in Keri Hulme’s The Bone People) or perceived quality (some people seem to really hate The Finkler Question).  
Four more decades of winners came and went and, by spring 2022, I’d read them all. I felt accomplished and enriched for the experience, but somehow bereft. A challenge like this is such a great way to expand your reading horizons, but what to do next? I’d leave that question for later.  

What did I learn along the way? First, that the Booker is a prize with a fascinating and compelling history. Learning about the behind-the-scenes drama and controversy had proved as much fun as reading the books, and I’d only scratched the surface. There’s surely a brilliant book to be written on the history of this at times weird and always wonderful prize!   

Second, that its winning books document not only the evolution of literary fiction, but of the broader culture. Interesting threads emerge and evolve over time, such as the depiction of the postcolonial world, beginning with inward-looking reflections on Britain and its declining role on the global stage (exemplified by Paul Scott’s Staying On) and exploding later into a rich multiplicity of voices from the former Empire (and beyond), from the likes of Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga.  

Staying On by Paul Scott

Every one of them was in some way enriching and worthwhile, even the ones that didn’t rank quite so highly in my final assessment

On a personal level, I developed a deeper commitment to my reading. I had to finish all these books to give my list credibility, and so persevered through novels that I may otherwise have given up on. Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist was my first taste of this, with an unforgettable ending, redeeming and transforming what had up to that point felt like a difficult read. The exercise led me to a better appreciation of the importance of experiencing a book as a whole, rather than just basing my appraisal on the immediate enjoyment it was delivering.  

In the process I’ve revisited old favourites; discovered authors that I’ve since grown to love (from Penelope Fitzgerald to George Saunders); been blown away by classics that I’d stupidly avoided, thinking they weren’t ‘my thing’ (hello Wolf Hall and Schindler’s Ark); and been constantly surprised by the brilliantly unusual winners that have popped up along the way (Keri Hulme, Penelope Lively and James Kelman come to mind).  

At the end of the experience, I found myself hugely impressed with the quality of the winners, and the variety of the stories they tell. Every one of them was in some way enriching and worthwhile, even the ones that didn’t rank quite so highly in my final assessment. It also made me wish I had more time to dive into those many and varied ‘vanquished foes’ from the shortlists over the years. I’ve dabbled in this, exploring various key stories from over the years, such as that of the perennial ‘Booker bridesmaid’ Beryl Bainbridge (shortlisted five times without a win) and conducting a re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale to try to understand how it could possibly have lost out to Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils in 1986.  

I’ve also enjoyed immersing myself in the lively discussion that takes place online every year on Instagram (and elsewhere) around the annual shortlists and longlists. While the past few years have produced a couple of more-than-worthy additions to the winners’ canon, reading the books that fell at the final hurdle has shown me that the Booker is about far more than just the eventual victors. Two of my favourites of recent times have come from those longer lists, in the shape of Percival Everett’s savage satire The Trees (shortlisted in 2022) and Martin MacInnes’ epic climate novel In Ascension (longlisted in 2023). I have a feeling I’ll be reading around the Booker for many more years to come.  

The Conservationist by Nadime Gordimer

My favourite Booker Prize winners to date:  

1. Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders
Spinning a wildly fantastical narrative around a single grain of historical truth, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, this debut novel from short-story specialist Saunders was the one read that absolutely floored me with its brilliance.  

2. The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro
An all-time favourite of mine, Ishiguro’s tale of a life devoted to service was a joy to revisit. It’s a big old wistful sigh of a novel, looking back with a sense of what might have been, as previously solidly-held assumptions about duty and right/wrong come crashing down. 

3. Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s magic realist epic dragged the Booker’s depictions of the postcolonial world kicking and screaming into the modern day, with a kaleidoscopically vivid ride through the history of India as an independent nation. It’s been voted the best Booker winner not once but twice, and is a titan not only of Booker history but of twentieth-century fiction. 

4. Disgrace (1999) by J. M. Coetzee

A brutal novel told from the perspective of an almost irredeemably flawed man, Disgrace is unflinchingly honest and as such far from the easiest read on this list. In typical Coetzee style, it employs precise, well-constructed prose to keep you reading, and despite its lack of hope you’re unable to look away from the unfolding horror. 

5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014) by Richard Flanagan  

One of a fair few Booker winners that manages to make the darkest of subject matter – in this case the horrors of hard labour on the Burma Death Railway during WW2 – somehow poetic and beautiful. Flanagan’s spare, economical style is the big draw here, but it’s also thematically rich and nuanced in its presentation of its many characters and their flaws.  

6. Shuggie Bain (2020) by Douglas Stuart

Stuart’s debut novel draws on his own life to paint a heartbreaking picture of the tribulations of growing up ‘different’ in working-class Glasgow. Some of the subject matter reads in summary like cliché, but it’s brought to life in a way that’s anything but.  

7. Girl, Woman, Other (2019) by Bernardine Evaristo 

Evaristo’s winner, which shared the 2019 prize with Margaret Atwood, was a deservedly popular sensation. While it’s squarely focused on the experience of Black female-identifying characters, there’s so many different stories in here that there’s something for everyone to enjoy and identify with.  

8. The Line of Beauty (2004) by Alan Hollinghurst

Another old favourite of mine but one that still stands up. Hollinghurst writes beautifully, and this aesthetically-fixated (yet by no means superficial) novel is a triumph of both style and substance. It’s a recent historical novel, looking back at the AIDS crisis of the 1980s with a mixture of nostalgia and inevitable sadness.  

9. Moon Tiger (1987) by Penelope Lively

Something of an underrated gem, I feel.  Lively’s short book is posited as a ‘history of everything’, which it both obviously isn’t and also sort of is – albeit one told through the intriguing eyes of a flawed yet magnetic central character. 

10. A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015) by Marlon James 

A book that’s sort of about Bob Marley, but more honestly about Jamaica, contains many more than seven killings and is both very long and somewhat tough-going. While this one is far from an easy read, it’s punctuated by enough awe-inspiring moments of insight, emotion and even humour to keep the journey entertaining and worthwhile.  

Lincoln in the Bardo