There’s no question that the Man Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious literary awards for a novelist writing in English. The award comes with a £50,000 prize, an inevitable increase in sales of the winning book and of course, larger advances for the winning writers. As the authors of this year’s shortlisted novels wait for the announcement of the winner later today, October 17, their book sales have shot up since they made the list. For those keeping track, Ali Smith’s Autumn is leading in sales, but George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is the favourite to win with betting site Ladbrokes.
Being a Booker Prize winner catapults a novelist into the company of literary giants like Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel. Some of the most acclaimed and popular novels of the last 48 years (which is how long the prize has been in existence) have found themselves on the winners list, from The English Patient to The God of Small Things.
Despite the hype and scrutiny in the year of their win, however, not all books stand the test of time. To-read lists are long and reader attentions short, as shown by these novels that won the coveted prize but slipped through the cracks of public memory.
Holiday, Stanley Middleton (1974)
Written by English novelist Stanley Middleton, Holiday had the dubious distinction of being the first book to share the award with another title, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conversationist. Middleton’s quiet novel follows Edwin Fisher, a lecturer who goes to an unremarkable seaside resort for a holiday. Not much happens to the protagonist but most of the novel takes place inside his head, revealing the workings of Fisher’s insecurities, contempt with the world and vulnerabilities.
Middleton, who died in 2009 at the age of 89, published more than 40 novels in his lifetime, but even the Booker win did little to elevate him to mass popularity. In 2006, The Times pranked publishers and literary agents by anonymously sending them the first chapter of the relatively obscure book to consider for publication – only one thought it worthy enough to see the remaining chapters.
Saville, David Storey (1976)
Set in 1930s England, Saville is the story of a coal mining family in Saxton, Yorkshire. Its lead character, a young man named Colin, who endures the hardships of living in a mining village during the Second World War, is plagued by poverty and dreams of becoming a writer in London.
The book is assumed to be heavily autobiographical – Storey grew up as a miner’s son in rural Yorkshire and eventually became a writer in London – but even its honest intimacy didn’t earn it a lasting place on bookshelves. Storey, hardly a household name to begin with, is better-known for writing This Sporting Life, about a Northern England man who goes on and tries to make it as a rugby league player.
Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively (1987)
Another novel set during and around the Second World War (there might be a pattern here), Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was dismissed at the time of its win as “the housewife’s choice.” Literary and sexist snobbery aside, the book has since been celebrated for its complex, independent and wonderfully selfish heroine, Claudia Hampton, a historian dying of cancer.
In a masterful narrative that travels across time as Hampton reviews her life, Lively unveils a tragic love story as well as a deeply nuanced reflection on memory and history. Despite its merits, Moon Tiger remains largely forgotten, unlike its Booker-winning contemporaries from the 1980s, such as Midnight’s Children or The Remains of the Day.
How Late It Was, How Late, James Kelman (1994)
When it won the Booker Prize in 1994, Scottish writer James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late was a highly controversial choice. The book, written in a Scottish working class dialect, angered many critics and columnists for its writing style and heavy profanity. One of the judges on that year’s panel, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, famously stormed off when it was awarded the prize and The Independent, while reviewing it, sniffily estimated that Kelman must have used the F-word approximately 4,000 times in the novel.
Over two decades later though, the stream-of-consciousness novel, which follows Sammy, an ex-convict in Glasgow, hasn’t made as lasting a mark in public memory as the controversy might have suggested. Other Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh, who also paid no heed to restraint in profanity went on to capture a much larger following of readers.
The Gathering, Anne Enright (2007)
Largely considered as an outlier when it was shortlisted, The Gathering by Irish author Anne Enright went on to win the prize for its incisive, stark depiction of Veronica, a 39-year-old woman dealing with the death of her alcoholic brother. Running back and forth between her memories from the past and the weight of the present, Veronica is overcome by grief, resentment towards her family and a quest to make sense of the tragedy.
The Gathering is a relentless and sharp novel that showcases Enright’s tremendous skill but it remains woefully unread for a book that won the Man Booker Prize just ten years ago, especially compared to the novels it edged out from that year’s shortlist, including The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (a shortlisted author this year as well).
The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson (2010)
Although it might not be as obscure as the other books on the list, The Finkler Question finds itself here when judged on the criterion of recentness. It is an intuitively witty exploration of the essence of Jewishness and a worthy winner of the prize. But the novel, only published seven years ago, hasn’t found the kind of widespread success that other recent Booker winners have garnered. It finds itself sandwiched, for instance, between heavyweight novels such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, which won in 2009 and 2011 respectively.
Howard Jacobson’s oft-repeated quip about what he would do with the prize money is likely to have sticking power though. In his acceptance speech the British writer announced he was going to spend the £50,000 amount on a handbag for his wife, asking, “Have you seen the price of handbags?”