Critic, Book World

“The English Patient,” by Michael Ondaatje, won the Golden Man Booker, a special award to crown the best Booker Prize-winning novel on the 50th anniversary of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary award.

Michael Ondaatje wins the Golden Man Booker Prize at the Royal Festival Hall on July 8 in London. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

The announcement Sunday night in London topped off several days of public interviews, talks and even a reception at Buckingham Palace. With dozens of famous authors and actors involved, this orgy of literary eminence was designed to reaffirm the Booker as an arbiter of supreme excellence.

Scratch the gilt, though, and the Golden Man Booker reveals a melding of the problems inherent in all literary awards.

Consider the complex design of this contest. The Man Booker Foundation appointed five judges. Each judge read all the Booker winners from a particular decade and chose his or her favorite novel. That process produced the short­list:

1969-1979: “In a Free State,” by V.S. Naipaul.

1980-1989: “Moon Tiger,” by Penelope Lively.

1990-1999: “The English Patient,” by Michael Ondaatje.

2000-2009: “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel.

2010-2017: “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders.

Finally, to select the winner, the public was invited to vote on the Man Booker website from May 26 to June 25. Almost 9,000 votes were cast.

As a system of selection, this is a curious conflation of the single expert and the wisdom of crowds — or, if you will, super elitism and mob rule. After all, each novel on the short­list was chosen by just one person (not nearly enough), and yet the winner was chosen by thousands (far too many).

Having the unwashed public pick the best novel sounds wonderfully egalitarian, but it ignores all kinds of unanswerable questions about the self-selection and legitimacy of the voters. Is it intolerably snobby to wonder how many of these 9,000 people knew anything about the books on the shortlist? And, anyhow, is the public a reliable judge of literary quality? The weekly bestseller list is, after all, a constantly adjusting contest of the public’s tastes, and it is rarely encouraging.

For all the problems with traditional literary judging panels — and there are many — that arrangement at least provides a high level of confidence that most of the people voting have read most of the finalists they’re voting on. But when such a contest is opened to the public, interested people are likely to vote for the book they happen to have read, because books we’ve read are always better than books we have not read.

Ondaatje, a 74-year-old Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer, sounded suspect of the whole enterprise when he accepted the prize Sunday night.

Among the people he thanked was the director of the Academy Award-winning movie adaptation of “The English Patient,” the late Anthony Minghella, “who I suspect probably had something to do with the result of this vote.” In other words, a popular movie is a heavy thumb on the scales of literary judgment when the public is involved.

And Ondaatje humbly raised more fundamental questions about the contest.

“Not for a second do I believe this is the best book on the list or any other list that could have been put together of Booker novels,” he said. “It is important for us to admit that there are great books that never received the Booker Prize.” He went on to wish that the judges had invited the finalists to speak about their favorite overlooked classics so that the discussion could have been broadened “to enlarge what ought to be read, as opposed to relying on the usual suspects.”

The express purpose of the Golden Man Booker was to showcase books “that have best stood the test of time,” a peculiar claim given that one of the five finalists, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” has stood the test of time since 2017 — about as long as the potted fern on my desk.

I love Saunders’s highly unusual novel about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, but I wouldn’t hazard a guess about its longevity. The field of literary history is littered with stumps of once grand trees now overtaken by seedlings that few people paid attention to at the time. When F. Scott Fitzgerald died at 44 in 1940, no one imagined that his weak-selling novel “The Great Gatsby” would one day be considered the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Like the statue that Shelley describes crumbling in the desert, every literary award shouts, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/ Look on my Works.” But in the end, the ultimate judge of which novels stand the test of time is time itself.

So, like Ondaatje, take this prize and every prize with a grain of salt.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post, where he hosts