What happens when you go to the Cheltenham Booker?

At the alternative Booker Prize five novels, from a year that predates the beginning of the Man Booker in 1968, are considered by five speakers from the Cheltenham Literature Festival programme.

Claire and I have attended this  three years in a row. It has become not a question of ‘would you like to?’ or ‘shall we?’ rather, ‘are you okay for the Booker?’

Despite a few hiccups when we thought we might have to miss this year, everything got worked out at the last minute. So I didn’t discover which titles had been set until we were on our way, and Claire read the blurb out:

“Our all-star line-up of novelist Madeleine Thien, journalist Alex ClarkThe Times Literary Editor Robbie Millen, Mostly Lit’s Raifa Rafiq and author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott debate the merits of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, The Bell by Iris Murdoch and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had the Man Booker Prize existed 60 years ago.”

Claire paused, then added, ‘I’ve heard of some of them, but not read any.  I rely on this event, and you, to provide me with interesting new reading experiences.’

‘No pressure then,’ I said. ‘Well, Things Fall Apart has been on my shelf for a couple of years,’ I said, ‘but somehow I keep putting off starting it.’

‘I’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ said Claire.  ‘Does that count?’

‘I loved that film,’ I said. ‘But it was very different from the book.’

‘So, what do you think of the list?’

‘It should make an interesting debate.’

With which statement I ascended to the role of prophetess. You may all stand and raise you hats in recognition of my perspicacity. Thank you.

Okay, okay, so maybe there’s a teeny particle of exaggeration at play here.  It was clearly a strong list.

Claire and I discussed the other years we’ve watched, when one, or even two, weak titles were included.  In fact, we once watched the champion of a novel vote his own book out at the first stage. I couldn’t see anything so obvious in this 1958 list.

‘Maybe the Achebe?’ said Claire.

‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘it’s been recommended by so many interesting readers and writers that there’s got to be a lot going for it.’

This year’s panel had as much difficulty as I did in reducing the selection even by one.  Interesting doesn’t begin to touch what happened next. Once each panellist had pitched the novel they were championing, the discussion opened up, and soon shifted to the nature of judging in general.

The question was, how one title could be selected when the choices are so dissimilar in style and content.  The conversation developed – oh boy, this was right up my street. Panellists identified historical context and social commentary; examined characterisation; explained plot; considered philosophical depth and insight.

On the one hand, pity ‘the chair’, James Walton, who struggled to keep the conversation focused on compare and contrast, and to prompt the panel to stop agreeing, and backing each other up.  Then cheer for a panel that took up their task with such good natured energy, that they turned this from an interesting event into one that I would happily have seen extended for another hour… at least.

The outcome? Claire’s going to borrow my copy of The Bell, and I’ve moved Things Fall Apart to the front of my TBR shelf. Oh, yes, it was the Achebe that won.

13 thoughts on “What happens when you go to the Cheltenham Booker?

  1. Cath, the whole issue of comparing books with a view to choosing the “best” has exercised my blokes only (don’t ask) book group for ages. Books are such different animals it can be like choosing between a grasshopper and a gnu. Gnot easy.
    Thanks for your take on it -. obviously Cheltenham must now be added to Hay as a must visit event.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ha, my vote goes to Sat night/Sun morning.Being a dyed- in- the -wool Yorkshire lass (almost literally). It fuelled my teenage rebellion years. However the task of judging such an eclectic set of books would defeat me. It must be a nightmare particularly when the context of each is a way back. Thanks for a thought provoking post. Now where’s my copy of S/S?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although not anything close to having Yorkshire roots, I too have strong feelings about Sat night/Sun morning, and am also going to reread it as soon as I’ve checked out Things Fall Apart – I’ve just got to know what they, and every other reader of it, know.


  3. One more complication garbles the choice for me if I were a judge given those terms of reference: did the 2018 panel have to identify with a hypothetical panel consisting of people who lived 60 years ago, or just be themselves? Because I suspect The Milkman might not have won in 1958, given a panel of 1958 judges. With this year’s judges, Things Fall Apart would have been a clear contender and ditto Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. First, I love how this actually made me think of that Monty Python sketch of a soccer (football) match between the Greek and German philosophers: once the referee blows the whistle, all the philosophers just start walking around, arguing to themselves and in groups until Socrates (I think) suddenly thinks to kick the ball to…whomever Eric Idle plays, who then head-buts the ball into the goal to win the game. Just imagining these authors debating, and how riveting it is as a spectator to see such minds diving into narrative elements I’m still such a child in grasping–how awesome! And I completely agree that when books are so vastly different, how can we possibly set them side by side for comparison. The mediator also had a good point, though–when looking at the elements OUTSIDE the novel, like historical and social context. It’s interesting to see how such things are present (or absent) from any given genre.
    Gosh, I’m rambling. Lovely post, is my point. 🙂 xxxxxxxxxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: : my #10booksofsummer. | Cath Humphris

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