Time Out Melbourne

Thought the literary world was cultured and refined? These five Booker scandals will make you think again

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced in September and the £50,000 annual prize will be awarded in October to the best full-length work of fiction written in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth. As the list is whittled down to a single winner, there’s likely to be great debate, controversy and, if we’re lucky, a scandal or two. Because while Booker may be the most prized literary award in all Commonwealth-dom, it is also the most controversial. And so, as the literary world enters the zenith of another Booker silly season, we take a look at the most monocle-raising scandals from the prize’s past...

Black Power Booker

When he won for his novel G in 1972, John Berger vowed to give half of his prize money to the Black Power movement. The prize was sponsored at the time by food wholesaler Booker-McConnell, which had been trading in the Caribbean for 130 years and thus, according to Berger, contributing to poverty there.

Burgess vs Golding

In 1980, fierce literary rivals William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies) and Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange) squared off as hot favourites for the prize. Burgess, who’d called the awards a “silly little British game”, said he refused to attend the ceremony unless he knew in advance he was to win. Golding took out the prize; Burgess watched from home.


After losing his chance at a second Booker for Shame in 1983 (he’d already won for Midnight’s Children), Salman Rushdie told event administrator Martyn Goff to “fuck off” at the ceremony after Goff tried to console him outside the gents’ room.

"The piranha-infested waters of publishing"

For shame, darling! The Brit-lit world was a-rumble with tut-tutting when actress Joanna Lumley was put on the judging panel in 1985. When the other judges banded together to pick a winner Lumley did not agree with – The Bone People by Kiwi Keri Hulme – the actress said the “so-called bitchy world of acting was a Brownies tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing.”

The low road

Last year’s shortlist caused a stir for being too “readable” with literary heavyweights in Britain attacking the judging panel for picking lighter fare over more ambitious (dull?) and “artistically excellent” material. Interestingly, the most un-readable (we mean, ambitious and artistically excellent) novel won in the end –Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending.

Place your bets: the 2012 short list
Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home
Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies
Alison Moore, The Lighthouse
Will Self, Umbrella
Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

Updated on 3 Mar 2014.

By Joel Meares   |  
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