The Daily Telegraph

Why the Booker Prize so often gets it wrong

Ahead of the BBC’S ‘A Suitable Boy’, Claire Allfree recalls how that and other great novels were snubbed


This Sunday sees the start of one of the most eagerly awaited dramas of the year – BBC One’s A Suitable Boy. Set in the aftermath of the 1947 partition of India, the lavish six-part series tells the story of four families over 18 months and of one mother’s efforts to find an “appropriat­e” husband for her youngest daughter Lata, played by newcomer Tanya Maniktala, 23.

The original book, by Vikram Seth, is both a richly imagined drama and a devastatin­g depiction of caste conflict and religious intoleranc­e in Fifties India and is considered by many to be one of the best novels of the 20th century. TV and film executives have been jostling to adapt it since before it was published.

But the famously long novel (the hardback is 1,349 pages) also boasts another claim to fame: it is one of the very best books not to have won the Booker Prize. Published in 1993 to ecstatic reviews, A Suitable Boy did not even make the shortlist, prompting Anthony Cheetham, the boss of publisher Orion, to denounce the judging panel as “a bunch of w-----s”. Rather more elegantly, Seth’s agent settled for sending one of the judges a simple note: “May God and literature forgive you.”

But, of course, the snub should not really have come as a surprise to either individual; the Booker – which announces its latest longlist next week – is famous for its knack of picking the wrong book. In the same year that A Suitable Boy was overlooked, Irvine Welsh’s zeitgeist-defining debut Trainspott­ing was removed from the shortlist after two judges threatened to walk out. In fact, over the years, the Booker has consistent­ly gone for serious, worthy novels on “important” themes at the expense of high-quality, pleasurabl­e literature that people actually want to read. How better to reinforce your own “progressiv­e” credential­s than by picking weighty books that have “big” things to say about gender, race or a certain set of politicall­y correct values? Jon Mcgregor’s Reservoir 13, published in 2017, for instance, was a quiet, exquisite novel about the impact of a missing girl on a local community, but these themes are not the ones that the Booker tends to reward. And while I admire the Booker Prize Foundation’s commitment to literary experiment­ation – nearly every year there’s a novel on the shortlist that’s heroically unreadable – that impulse can often come across as obtuse.

Here then is our round-up of the worst decisions in Booker Prize history.

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 ??  ?? Eagerly anticipate­d: Ishaan Khatter and Tabu in A Suitable Boy, the BBC adaptation of the novel by Vikram Seth, above in 1993
Eagerly anticipate­d: Ishaan Khatter and Tabu in A Suitable Boy, the BBC adaptation of the novel by Vikram Seth, above in 1993

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