Thousands of pages and millions of words: judging the Man Booker Prize

Baroness Lola YoungLola Young, Baroness Young of Hornsey, is a Middlesex University alumna, honorary graduate, and a former Professor of Cultural Studies. A leading figure in the creative and cultural industries, she was selected as chair of the judges for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. As the longlist is announced, Baroness Young reflects on the power of reading and her experience of judging the most prestigious award for fiction written in English.

Settling down with an absorbing, well-written book is a wonderful experience. I feel as though I could read the moment I was born, though I was brought up in a household with few books which I read over and over again.

How did you get into reading?

There were newspapers though, and always an article to provoke comments about what was happening in the world around us. The children’s books I did have access to were the standard kids’ fare of the time. Annuals appeared every Christmas – Bunty for girls and The Eagle for boys. I read both and anything else I could get my hands on.

Enid Blyton was my favourite in spite of the ‘gollywogs’, monkeys and other racialised metaphors that abounded in her stories. No book or newspaper reading was allowed at the meal table though, so I had to make do with a close analysis of the label on the bottle of salad cream. If it could be read, then I would read it.

The Man Booker longlist 2017

The Man Booker longlist 2017

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. Its reputation as one of the top international literary prizes means that the brand is instantly recognisable for everyone to whom I’ve spoken.

How many books do you have to read?

The first question I’m asked about my involvement with the Man Booker is usually: “How many books do you have to read?” “Around 150,” 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 to whittle down the 150 or so books submitted to 12 or 13 in the first instance, then down to six, and finally to one winner, over a period of approximately ten months. It’s a very intense process. Thankfully, the responsibility of judging what amounts to the authors’ years of toil and research, thousands of pages and probably millions of words, is shared with the other judges: Lila Azam Zanganeh, Colin Thubron, Sarah Hall and Tom Phillips. These four are also the only people with whom I can discuss the books, which is really difficult because I want to share my reading experiences with everyone!

What’s the impact on a judge’s life?

The impact on my life? Well, my friends have more or less given up trying to entice me to accompany them to the cinema or the theatre. I’m excluded from conversations about the latest batch of dramas on television and nobody bought me any books for Christmas, nor will they for my birthday. Both planned and spontaneous social occasions have more or less ceased to exist for me, and I’ve turned down a whole slew of invitations to participate in worked-related events.

It’s a wonderful opportunity and a huge privilege

But for someone who loves reading, whether that be on a phone, tablet or on reams of paper bound between sturdy covers, it’s simply a wonderful opportunity and a huge privilege to be immersed in these novels. 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.

2017 marks the 49th year of the Man Booker Prize, with the winning novel selected from entries published in the UK between 1 October 2016 and 30 September 2017. Discover further information on the longlisted novels by visiting the Man Booker website.

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