The 2009 Booker shortlist is fiercely English, inclined to the historical narrative and will reassure British booksellers
Robert McCrum , The Observer, Sunday 13 September 2009
Now that the Booker Prize has turned 40, after years of dinners and high living, it's time for a health check. This global trophy certainly bears little resemblance to the tweedy British prize that came on the scene in 1969, allegedly after a game of golf.
In its first decade, prize business was settled in the smoke-filled rooms of London clubs, where it remained resolutely insular. Commonwealth writers were eligible, but only two winners, VS Naipaul (1971) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975), hinted at the potential of Abroad. The Booker usually got no closer to India than JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973).
Television changed everything. After 1980, the prize became a media event.
Now, it was not only the premier literary event of the English-speaking world, it was also going global, from Banff to Buenos Aires, and attracting high-brow scorn, probably a good sign. For Julian Barnes, it was "posh bingo", for Nicci Gerrard "a grand folly". Its power was also having a decisive – some would say disastrous – influence on the contemporary novel.
By the 1990s, "Booker fiction" had become synonymous with "unreadable" and/or "pretentious". But a prize that recognised the importance of novels such as Offshore, Oscar and Lucinda, Earthly Powers, Life and Times of Michael K and The Ghost Road was clearly on the side of the angels. That was the Booker's dilemma: should it focus on posterity or the marketplace? Ideally, both, which is an almost impossible double.
In its third decade, 1990-2000, the prize had it all: success, prestige, international renown. And blew it. Booker plc was in trouble. Throughout the 1990s, the prize traded on its past, got mired in controversy, lost its way and was duly challenged by brilliant upstarts like Orange.
Suddenly, it had to revitalise itself or surrender its supremacy. The arrival of the Man Group was like the entry of the rich aunt in Victorian melodrama. Overnight, the ne'er-do-well clubman had to brace up and address a contemporary audience.
What, then, of the 2009 shortlist? At first glance, it breaths the spirit of the 1970s. Fiercely English, it is strongly inclined to the historical narrative. Every one of these books explores the past in some form.