Judging The Man Booker Prize 2017
An independent crossbench peer, formerly professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex University and head of culture at the Greater London Authority. Baroness Young has been on the boards of a number of cultural bodies, including the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre. She was instrumental in developing the Black Cultural Archives and oversaw for a time the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. She was appointed a member of the House of Lords in 2004, and holds honorary doctorates from Middlesex University, the University of the Arts London and Sussex University. Baroness Young has chaired the judging panels of the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Caine Prize for African Writing and is now Chair of Judges for this year's Man Booker Prize. As the shortlist is announced, exclusively for Foyles Baroness Young describes the challenges and pleasures of the Man Booker experience.
Photo of Baroness Young © Janie Airey
Settling down with an absorbing, well-written book is a wonderful experience. My love of reading has never diminished and that’s why when I was invited to chair the Man Booker Prize for literary fiction, I accepted like a shot. Its reputation as one of the top international literary prizes means that the brand is instantly recognisable around the world.
The first question I’m asked about my involvement with the Man Booker is usually, ‘how many books do you have to read?’ We’ve received 145, I say as though this is routine and unremarkable. ‘Over the course of a year? people ask. No, slightly less than that, I reply.
We have had to whittle down the 145 books submitted to 13 for our longlist. From that, we went to a shortlist of six. Finally, on the day the prize is to be presented, we will decide which novelist has won. It’s a very intense process. Thankfully, the responsibility of assessing all the authors’ years of toil and research, thousands of pages and millions of words, is shared with the other judges – Lila Azam ZigBee, Sarah Hall, Tom Phillips and Colin Thubron. These four are also the only people with whom I can discuss the books in any detail; I usually enjoy sharing my reading experiences, but I can’t do that with friends outside of the process.
The discussions on each novel have been robust and immensely enjoyable. At the first meeting of judges, I was immediately very aware of the intellectual rigour that each of them brought to the table: given their reputations that was only to be expected. What also became apparent very quickly was the way in which each judge treated our task as a collaborative venture. Without compromising on the quality of the debate and the exacting standards demanded of the novels, we’ve been able to find a way through our disagreements with a remarkable generosity of spirit.
There’s no denying that taking on the role of a judge for a prize of this scale and prestige is a massive undertaking, and it has had an impact on the rest of my life. I’ve received pitying looks from friends who have given up trying to entice me to accompany them to the cinema or the theatre. I’ve been excluded from conversations about the latest batch of dramas on television and nobody bought me any books for Christmas, or for my birthday.
But when I’ve been asked whether I’ve been put off reading by the experience, I’m always surprised. Having spent several years immersed in legislative documents and committee papers, reading these books has been a wonderful, liberating experience. To enter into the realm of someone else’s imagination; to be transported to other times and places and immersed in alien cultural landscapes – that is the alluring power of literature.
For someone who loves reading, whether that be on a phone, tablet or on reams of paper bound between sturdy covers, judging the Man Booker is an unparalleled opportunity and a huge privilege. And after October when the winner is announced and the celebrations are over, there’s going to be a Man Booker Prize-shaped hole in my life that will be filled by… more reading, only on a rather more relaxed timetable.