A Review of the 2011 Booker Prize: The Readability Prize

The 2011 Booker Prize was probably the most infamous for a Prize that is always controversial

Cover image of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This was the year where judge Chairman, former MI5 Director and thriller author, Dame Stella Rimington declared that the judges were looking for ‘enjoyable’ books that were ‘readable’. Another judge, former Labour MP and author Chris Mullin, was urged by friends to ‘pick something readable’. As a result, the judges were accused of ‘dumbing down’ the prize.

Judges for literary prizes can’t seem to win. They will be heavily criticised for their choices of the contenders – who was left in, who was left out – long before they will be criticised some more for their choice of winner. In most years the Booker is characterised as the epitome of literary snobbishness, so it is a little humorous to see them accused of being the opposite. Sceptics will ask what such prizes actually achieve other than stimulating controversy and selling books.

The ‘readability’ issue, though, was unique in that it challenged the integrity of the Booker Prize itself. After all, is it a literature prize or isn’t it? If it is then why is ‘readability’, whatever that is supposed to mean, a criteria? If it isn’t a literature prize, then why not blindfold the judges and ask them to throw darts at a line up of titles from Stephen King and John Grisham?

Personally, I enjoy the literary prizes. I enjoy the build up, the discussion, the debate and the controversy. Including the never-ending debate over the distinction between literature and the rest of fiction. Intelligent debate, filled with thoughtful interpretation, astute analysis, knowledgeable comparison and personal appreciation does literature and culture considerable credit. Nothing is worse than the lack of it. But a lot of this enjoyment is predicated on there being a strong line up of contenders to begin with.

In a strong year, with many worthy nominees, all the other issues become secondary when one considers the primary question of whether we can expect any reasonable result from a process as inherently subjective as comparing books. More than anything else, if the debate descends into nothing more than matters of taste, rather than comparisons of quality and flaws in craft, you know you have a strong group to choose from.

Having now read and reviewed four of the shortlisters for the 2011 Booker Prize, I feel confident in saying that this was not a strong year

Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English should not have made the longlist. It is a flawed novel that seems to have gatecrashed on the sympathy for its themes. Patrick De Witt’s The Sisters Brothers is fun and interesting but I am not convinced that it is literature. In a weak year it can be given a longlisting but should not progress further. Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues is a good book. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) as well as the Booker, it has its flaws as well but overall is a worthy shortlister in most years but equally does not have the quality of a winner.

I have not read, nor do I intend to read, AD Miller’s Snow Drops or Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie. From what I gather of other reviewers, Snow Drops is enjoyable but not literature prize material, while Jamrach’s Menagerie may have provided the only real competition from the shortlist to the eventual winner, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

The only other points of contention are the questions of whether 2011 longlisters, Sebastion Barry’s On Canaan’s Side or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, should have been shortlisted (or even won).

Given the shortlist, I found The Sense of an Ending to be a worthy winner

Some have suggested that the weight of criticism heaped on the judges led them to make a safe choice in Julian Barnes’ novel. Others have pointed out that some of Barnes earlier work is superior to this novel (he has been shortlisted three times previously) but he kept being pipped for the final choice. Did safety and sympathy overtake readability in the final choice of a winner?

One might argue that, at only 150 pages, it does not have the scale or the scope of a real literary achievement. It is true that its themes are not grandiose, its characters not especially complex or destined for literary immortality. This is a novel of craft and elegance in brevity rather than artistic vision and essential themes on an epic scale. The Booker has not shied from awarding short novels; consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or JM Coetzee’s Disgrace.

One other criticism of annual literary prizes is that they are by definition unable to ascertain the enduring qualities of a work. In fact, many shortlisters are announced before they are even published. The Booker at least revisits some of its past winners in assessing prizes such as their Best of the Booker (won by Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children). The durability of The Sense of an Ending is questionable. I don’t see it being a lasting work.

While the judges probably did choose the best of the shortlist in the end, due to a weak list the real disappointment is in the inability to promote good debate on that point.


  1. I think that the Booker Prize is one of the ‘better’ literary prizes out there, at least in terms of matching with my literary tastes. I’ve read and enjoyed more Booker-winning novels than any other prize-winning novels, like Pulitzer winners, for example. I just find that Booker winners are more varied in scope and topic and you can be assured that a book that has won the Booker, though not necessarily brilliant, would be worth reading.


    • Totally agree, in most years the faults with the Booker are really the faults of any prize, but if you’re looking for some worthwhile contemporary literature, my first place to look is the Booker.


      • I’ve set a goal to try to read all the novels that have won the Booker prize over the years. I’m nowhere near done with the backlog but that’s ok. Sometimes I read the year’s winner. At least I know that if I ever ran out of other books to read, I can rely on the Booker list for a good read.


      • It’s a good goal to have, I currently have 45 of the books that have been nominated (including 22 winners) but have only read 16 (including 5 winners), a long way to go!


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