Man Booker Juror Colin Thubron: ‘The Prize Is Important’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

As the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is announced, prize juror Colin Thubron offers an inside look at the selection process.

Author and Man Booker Prize for Fiction juror Colin Thubron at the announcement of the 2017 shortlist. Image: Provided by Man Booker Prize

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Confronting the World’

When the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is announced in London on Tuesday (October 17), one of the five people responsible for the choice says that, “I was warned, you know,” that being a Booker juror would consume the better part of a year of his life.

“It’s 144 novels. But it’s quite fascinating, you know,” says Colin Thubron, British author and 2017 Man Booker Prize jury member, “to have the opportunity for an entire year to look at what’s supposedly the best fiction published in the English language in the States and the UK. So I don’t regret it.”

Speaking of fiction published in the English language, Thubron is the author most recently of Night of Fire, and the fact that he’d wrapped up that project and had it in the hands of Chatto & Windus for its August 2016 publication meant that he could devote a year of concentration to the Booker assignment.

“I couldn’t have done this while I was writing a novel,” he says. “It would have been impossible for me.”

“You begin to think that your own opinion is the only possible and right one, and you get disabused of that when you’re talking to your fellow judges.”Colin Thubron

Then again, it’s hard to believe that anything might be impossible for Thubron. At 78, he’s the author of at least 16 travel-based nonfiction cultural studies. The first, Mirror to Damascus (Heinemann, 1967) having been re-released in 2008 by Vintage in a 50th anniversary edition.

Working in a grand tradition seen too infrequently today, Thubron’s efforts lie in a kind of experiential-adventure genre that has taken him to many parts of the Mediterranean and to Siberia and China and beyond. For all this, he was appointed a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the 2007 New Year Honors.

His novels, eight of them, may be what he has called at times “my anti-travel books,” but even they frequently reflect his pleasure in discovery. His To the Last City about Peru’s Vilcabamba (Chatto & Windus, 2002) itself was longlisted for a Booker, and his new Night of Fire is said by critics to be his most ambitious yet, a study in personality and mortality that spans an incendiary journey from ground to top floor, from Malawi to Cardiff.

“Travel has always been a kind of addiction for me,” he told John Preston at The Telegraph last year, “but I’ve never thought of it as an escape….If anything, I think I’m confronting the world when I travel. For me, staying at home has much more to do with escape.”

‘We Have To Choose on the Merits’

And of course, Thubron, so vastly steeped in his own long journeys through so many cultures, is the perfect literary prize judge to ask about today’s emphasis on diversity in literary awards. How consciously does a modern jury work to strive for multicultural balance in its choices of longlists and shortlists and winners? How is merit weighed against such pressing social concerns of the day?

Thubron says merit is all. “We have to choose on the merits of the material,” he says, “otherwise it would be impossible.”

He’s worked for this year’s Booker with fellow jurors Lila Azam Zanganeh, Sarah Hall, Tom Phillips, and chair Baroness Lola Young. “And we’ve been pretty stringent about that,” he says.

“Obviously, when you’ve selected the books, you look at them and you hope that there’ll be a good gender and nationality balance. But it doesn’t affect  your choice.

“Of course what you don’t know, because most of us have a certain kind of background, is whether we’ll be less open to the kind of pacing or priorities that, say, novels have from South Asia, which were some strong contenders. Or even American novelists, there’s some sort of difference there, culturally, which is quite difficult to put your finger on. And it’s that sort of thing–the subconscious thing–that we have to think about. Consciously, there’s been absolutely no prioritizing of anything.

“I mean, we were glad to see, at the end of our choice of six” for the shortlist “that it did come down to three women and three men.”

With two British writers, one British-Pakistani author, and three US writers on the shortlist, Thubron says the jury also hasn’t heard any push-back in the press about concerns that the Booker might become “too Americanized” in the wake of the 2013 change that opened the Booker to writers of any nationality, not just UK and Commonwealth authors.

Here’s the shortlist, as Publishing Perspectives reported it:

  • Paul Auster (USA) for 4321 (Faber & Faber)
  • Emily Fridlund (USA) for History of Wolves (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan) for Exit West (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Fiona Mozley  (UK) for Elmet (JM Originals)
  • George Saunders (USA) for Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Ali Smith (UK) for Autumn (Hamish Hamilton)

“I have seen an article in the States,” he says in amusement, “saying that America is too intrusive, anyway, and shouldn’t be allowed to take over the Booker Prize.” This he finds “quite an interesting perspective and not one that’s come from here.”

Behind Closed Doors: The Jury at Work

The process of working through 144 books–and making the longlist selection of the 13 longlisted “Booker dozen,” then the six shortlisted books–is one that takes discipline from everyone on the jury, Thubron says.

About 25 books are allocated per month, he says. And fairly soon after that, “we all get down to discussing” that group, “while they’re fresh in our minds. We go for several hours of discussion in a quiet place, the five of us. I think we found, all of us, that it’s much easier to decide what didn’t make the cut. So a large number of books that we realized were not going to make the shortlist, those we could discard pretty unanimously.

“It’s as you get down to the longlist and then the shortlist [that] it begins to be more hard-fought and toughly discussed. Inevitably, people have books they wish to be on the shortlist. I certainly did have one. And you just have to make the compromise and the sacrifice” required to produce these slates.

“Luckily we were all fairly flexible in eventually kowtowing to the majority decision on this. But the process does get harder and harder at each stage.”

In addition to the guidance of Baroness Lola as the jury chair, “We also had the help of Gaby Wood, who runs the prize” as its literary director, Thubron says, “who occasionally will put in a word just to be helpful. Not an opinion on a book, but just to facilitate our discussions, from time to time.

“But mainly, I think we were all fairly disciplined about not going on too long, which is usually the threat, that somebody’s going to hold the floor too long” in making an appeal for a favorite book. “I’m glad to say that wasn’t happening. Well, not yet.”

This year’s jurors of the Man Booker Prize are, from left, chair Baroness Lola Young; Lila Azam Zanganeh; Sarah Hall; Tom Phillips, CBE RA; and Colin Thubron, CBE.

The Winner Has Not Yet Been Chosen
“If I had to bet on it, I’d have certain preferences, but I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t be sure that any of these six might not win.”Colin Thubron

There’s the really interesting part. As this article goes live on Monday, the day before the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is to be announced, that winner has not yet been selected.

“Very shortly before the announcement of the prize,” Thubron says, “we’re kind of locked into a room” to decide on the winner. “And so we’re forced to come to some decision.

“The prize is announced on the 17th of October and we’ve got to come to a decision that morning. We’ll meet the day before, but we’ll have to come to a decision on the morning of the 17th.”

One reason that things are finalized so close to the wire, he says, is the bookies. “People start placing bets. So if one of us were talking too openly to friends, it could mean quite a bit of abuse on that level. So it’s not a bad thing to have it decided late. I don’t know that that’s the reason, but it is a side issue. It’s a hot topic, and it’s got to be decided pretty much at the last moment.”

Having said that, “Of course we will have thought about it. Having just six books now” as opposed to 144, “means that we’ve had a month to think about them and to reread them. And of course we all have a sense of what our fellow judges are thinking and prefer. But the actual outcome, I couldn’t tell you. I’m just not sure.

“If I had to bet on it, I’d have certain preferences, but I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t be sure that any of these six might not win.”

The 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist. ‘For some,’ Says Colin Thubron, ‘it’s been almost more important to be on the shortlist than to win. The shortlist gets an enormous amount of attention.’

A Win-Win Experience

If anything, Thubron says, “one of the most exhilarating parts of being a Booker juror is a kind of education you get in the process from your interaction with your fellow judges.

“Sometimes judges articulate something you’ve felt about the book but you haven’t quite realized in yourself. That’s the interesting part of the process. You might think that in a purist way, the important thing is the relationship between the judge and the book, and that that’s the only thing that should be taken into consideration.

“But in fact, when we all started discussing, I learned a lot, realizing from other judges’ arguments that there are flaws in certain books which I hadn’t recognized or taken into account. And you learn that way. It’s an interesting, educative process. It has been for me.”

An interesting humility here: “You begin to think that your own opinion is the only possible and right one, and you get disabused of that when you’re talking to your fellow judges. Your judgments may begin to shift.”

In fact, in talking about how healthy an experience it is to have one’s own opinions cordially and intelligently challenged–something many veteran critics know well–Thubron talks of his hope for the newly energized trend in book clubs among UK readers. “That can do something of the same thing,” he says, “when people get together and talk about a book they’ve chosen to read and discuss it of an evening.”

‘The Most Powerful and Effective Prize’

As good an experience as it’s been, Thubron says, judging the Man Booker is not something he feels he’ll have the time to do again. “There are quite a lot of things I want to do,” he says, “and I don’t think people should do” jury work in literary awards “too much, because then you have too strong a voice in what is now a very powerful book prize.”

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction “is much the most powerful and effective prize in the UK,” he says, “it carries a clout that no other prize does. And I don’t think one should have the same judges on it too often. And by the time I was asked, anyway, I might be too senile, we’d have to see,” he adds with a laugh.

In terms of that clout, there’s always a question of whether the Man Booker is overly dominant.

Thubron says he recalls a story in The Guardian that suggested that authors are forgotten from the longlist when the shortlist is announced, and from the shortlist when the winner is announced, “but it’s not true,” he says. “I know plenty of authors who’ve been on the long- and shortlists, and the profiles of their books have been tremendously lifted by both. For some, it’s been almost more important to be on the shortlist than to win. The shortlist gets an enormous amount of attention.”

Thubron is not nearly so complimentary of blurbs, however, having complained last month about the “annoying” praise of many blurbs that can make readers think they’re to blame if they don’t enjoy a euphorically blurbed book. He was reported by Emma Rae Woodhouse at Sky News of having learned to ignore other authors’ endorsements, which, he said, can “blackmail you into feeling that you’re either intellectually or morally incompetent if you don’t ‘love this book.'”

In the end, as he said in that moment of controversial commentary, others’ opinions don’t matter. Yours does.

“I wouldn’t like to see the Man Booker disappear. The Man Booker Prize has hugely enhanced the profile of fiction”Colin Thubron

And that from a Man Booker judge–who’s in the room, after all, to promulgate his opinions–is a typically generous view by this deeply experienced and so widely traveled thinker.

Working as a Man Booker judge is something Thubron has seen as a service rightly performed for what he sees as an immensely important award program in the English-speaking literary world.

“I think of a parallel in travel,” he tells Publishing Perspectives. “There was a prize, the Thomas Cooke award, which was effective for the discipline. And that was discontinued, nothing came to take its place. And there’s no leading travel book prize award now.

“I wouldn’t like to see the Man Booker disappear. The whole place of fiction, the whole discussion in the media, would start to fall away.”

“The Man Booker Prize has hugely enhanced the profile of fiction,” he says. But that’s not to say that he’s simply performed his duty for a year in judging the awards’ entries.

“We take on this job because we relish it,” says juror and author Colin Thubron. “I’ve really enjoyed it and I’ve learned a lot.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.