For the past two years I’ve taken a close interest in The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. In 2018 I decided to read all six books on the shortlist and was invited to be a member of the judging panel. There are five votes that decide the winner: two go to the book which wins the public vote and the three members of the judging panel have one each. So if just one member of the judging panel goes with the public’s choice, that book is the winner. (You can read more about the longlisting and shortlisting processes and the full rules on the link.)
Both last year and again this year (with a different judging panel) the prize has gone to a book which was not only not the public’s favourite but actually received few votes in that process. Both times that has provoked some people to cry ‘Foul!’ and curses upon the heads of the judges, who have been called an elite (and worse things which get deleted from The Guardian’s website).
I know from my personal experience that last year the final voting process was fair. There was no discussion between the judges prior to the judging meeting. I have no reason to think things were different this year.
Whether or not there are lobbies for particular books that influence the public voting, one thing is for sure: no-one taking part in the public vote has to have read any book on the shortlist other than the one they are voting for, or give more than a few lines of review about their chosen book. To be on the panel you must have read at least three of the six and commented on them in some detail during the weeks leading up to the vote. In practice panel members will have read most if not all of the six.
The debate has little to do with the value of the prize (a Guardian mug – though of course it is something for the winning writer’s CV). It is more about how people see their opinions being regarded or disregarded, and about how some will hold to the belief so brilliantly delineated in Orwell’s Animal Farm that ‘all animals are equal but some are more equal than others’, whether or not it is really so.
The 2019 Not the Booker prize was won by Lara Williams for her debut novel Supper Club.
Coming soon: Thoughts about The Booker Prize – and the return of the Friday story…