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The Booker Prize: Prestige Amid Controversy

By Kristin Wood. Jun 24, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Awarded Books

When it comes to literature, there are only a few honors that rank higher than the Booker Prize: an award that seeks to name the best of the best in original novels. The prize guarantees international recognition and prestige for the winning author, but it also has a history of controversy.  Does the hint of a scandal ignite your curiosity? Read on to discover the shady stories behind some of these shining stars.

John Berger: Biting the Hand that Feeds You

When John Berger was awarded the prize in 1972, he used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to air some of his more unpopular opinions. He spoke out against Booker McConnell, the prize’s sponsor, blaming them for the modern-day poverty in Caribbean countries.

Berger went on to give half of his prize money to the British Black Panther movement, in an effort to show support for their socialist beliefs.

James Kelman: A Bitter Victory

James Kelman’s novel, How Late It Was, How Late, was chosen as the winner in 1994 – but his pride took a hit when Booker judge Rabbi Julia Neuberger spoke out against his work both before and after the decision was made. Neuberger threatened to resign if the book won, and then proceeded to publicly call the decision “crap” when it did.

Irvine Welsh:  An Early Defeat

When Trainspotting appeared on the longlist for the Booker Prize, two judges were immediately offended by the controversial content in the book and threatened to leave the panel. For this reason, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting did not make the shortlist; but this did not stop the novel from achieving international success and acclaim.

Yann Martel: Inspiration or Plagiarism?


After winning the Booker Prize, Martel was accused of plagiarism in his novel, Life of Pi. There are many similarities between his work and a Brazilian novel called Max and the Cats. Although Martel confessed he was inspired by the book, he claims he had only read a review of it, and that it was not plagiarized.Martel’s victory was also leaked to the media a week before the ceremony, creating chaos for the bookies taking bets on the winner.

Anthony Burgess: Pride Comes Before a Fall

When Burgess’s novel, Earthly Powers, made the short list in 1980, the author refused to attend the award ceremony without the guarantee of a win. He was refused, and that year’s prize ended up going to William Golding.

A.L. Kennedy: A Disillusioned Judge

Sitting on the panel is not an honor for every judge, as proven by AL Kennedy in 2001. She famously badmouthed the prize, saying that the winner is chosen based on "who knows who, who's sleeping with who, who's selling drugs to who, who's married to who, whose turn it.”


Browse Booker Prize Winners



Kristin Wood
Lover of words, from the shortest tweets to the longest works of literature. She spends her days adventuring into the wilds of social media, working on her MFA, and adding an endless stream of books to her “to-read” list.


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