Members of the hallowed Man Booker advisory committee, the body responsible for appointing the prize’s judges, are spitting blood at the appointment of John Sutherland to chair the award panel this year, claiming not to have been informed until hearing of it “quite accidentally” after the event.
A committee member, who preferred not to be named, said: “We were stunned when Sutherland was appointed. His name hadn’t been mentioned in meetings.”
The member said that the Man Booker administrator, Martin Goff, had made the appointment without consulting his committee colleagues, who include the broadcaster Mark Harrison and the bookseller James Heneage.
“He is an appalling choice, because of what happened last time round,” added the committee member.
“Last time round”, when Professor Sutherland was a judge in 1999, he wrote a piece for the Guardian in which he described the judging process.
His analysis was thunderously denied by two fellow judges, who accused him of a “breach of trust”.
The committee member said: “Last time he was incredibly indiscreet, and I think other judges felt betrayed. That kind of gossip, turning it into a circus, diminishes the stature of the Booker.”
Mr Goff said: “If the person concerned had gone through the minutes of the committee meetings, they would find that Sutherland was one of those people originally suggested.
“Then, when I had some turn-downs from other people I went to him and asked him to do it. The committee is an advisory committee – I don’t want to push it down, and we would never go against a majority decision, but almost no appointment of judges has ever been unanimous.”
Asked if Prof Sutherland was a potential liability, Mr Goff said: “That’s the very word I have used to him tonight. I have laid down certain rules.”
But he said Prof Sutherland was a “brilliant man”, adding: “Have you seen his CV?”
On the 1999 judging (when Prof Sutherland claimed that the winning book, JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, was “admired” but not “passionately liked” by the panel), Mr Goff said: “I was present in the whole meeting, as I have been for 33 years.
“There was a strong discussion, but no more than that. There was enthusiasm for Disgrace. It wasn’t a compromise.”