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Controversy surrounds Guardian’s 2019 ‘Not The Booker Prize’

Judges overrule public vote in 2019 'Not The Booker' prize.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas‘ didn’t win the 2019 Not the Booker Prize, despite receiving a clear majority of votes from the public.

The Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ award has been surrounded in controversy, after the judges chose to overlook the book that had won the public vote and award the 2019 prize to ‘Supper Club by Lara Williams.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas’ by Daniel James received 98 of 168 votes cast. However, the three judges (selected from members of The Guardian’s book club) chose to give this year’s Not the Booker Prize to Williams’s book, which received just 5 votes from the public.

In announcing the award, The Guardian wrote: “[Supper Club is] a superb debut novel from a writer bursting with talent. [Williams] has a great deal to say about our common humanity and the world we live in. Plus, this novel is hilariously funny and deeply moving.”

Yet this decision stood in stark contrast to the praise that had been heaped upon James’s book, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, which had been praised by readers for its “extraordinary” level of meta-textuality. For example, one Guardian book reviewer, Hanazuki, wrote:

“I really haven’t seen this sort of thing done so well before, and the review doesn’t mention all the accompanying material outside of the book (the Twitter account that mysteriously follows you, the Youtube videos with well known artists talking about Maas, the newspaper interviews) which is what elevates this for me beyond a novel to work of conceptual art. When those are added together the whole experience becomes surprisingly believable.”

Meanwhile, Graham Fulcher, one of the Not The Booker judges in 2018, gave James’s debut five stars, describing it as “a multi-layered examination of identity and myth and a magnificent hybrid of multiple literary forms that is never less than enthralling.”

Glen James Brown, whose novel was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and longlisted for the Portico Prize, was also one of the many acclaimed writers who voted for The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas to win. Brown wrote:

“[The book is] an incredibly ambitious debut that weaves together meta-biography, literary noir, and unashamed pulp thriller. Hugely enjoyable.”

And, for a prize that supposedly seeks to support independent, creative, and unique awards, many commentators were left dismayed that The Guardian’s judging panel would overrule a book so many had pointed out was not only “excellent” and “stunning”, but also “unlike anything they’d read before”.

In responding to the judges’ decision to overrule the public vote, The Guardian added: “The judges all saw positive qualities in The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, but despite its thumping victory in the public vote the novel didn’t speak to them enough. They were also irritated by aspects of its meta-fictional architecture.”

Voters outraged

Many of those members of the public who had voted for James’s novel were left aghast by the judge’s final decision, often taking to Twitter to vent their frustration and decry the process.

Ross Jeffrey, editor at printing press Storgy, for example, wrote: “#NotTheBookerPrize is rigged man! After last year I was hoping it would have changed everything that was wrong with it. But this year @danjameswriter had 98 public votes and lost to a book that got 5 votes? Not to mention other @DeadInkBooks in the list with more! #Sham”

And, in an interesting twist, there were even claims of foul play and malicious intent, as the Twitter page for ‘The Maas Foundation’ (which claims to be the official representatives of ‘Visionary’ artist Ezra Maas) seemed to suggest it had somehow influenced the final result. On Twitter, the account holder posted:

“You underestimate us. We control the vertical and the horizontal. The truth is what we authorise. You are nothing. We are everything. Did you think we would let @danjameswriter get away with his lies about #EzraMaas? The #NotTheBooker is just the start of our revenge…”

Crowdfunding campaign

Amid the furore over the result of the prize, a crowdfunding campaign had also been set up by supporters of James who felt aggrieved at the judge’s decision.

The GoFundMe campaign, set up by NITRB’s own @instantidealism, promises to “buy Daniel James a mug”, in reference to what winners of The Guardian’s  literary award receive.

People who pledge to support the campaign can “help to right the wrong” of the judge’s decision, with a promise that James will receive “a bigger and better mug than the one given by the Guardian and (if enough people chip in) some biscuits and fancy tea to drink out of it.”

At the time of writing, the campaign had already smashed its £10 target, so it seems likely that James will indeed by sipping on some Twinnings and M&S biscuits sooner rather than later.

Praise for the authors

Along with the controversy over the 2019 Not the Booker prize, other Twitter commentators were keen to focus congratulations to Williams, for writing what one user, @Sophie_Jo_Books, described as “oozing with delicious feminism, food, and female desire.”

And all the authors on this year’s shortlist were praised by Not the Booker organiser Sam Jordison, who wrote: “It’s felt like a great year. We had a really strong shortlist. All of the books had excellent qualities, the discussions were vibrant and fascinating, and we’ve shone the spotlight on some very talented writers.”

Guardian Reviews

You can read reviews of all the shortlisted books published by The Guardian using the links below.

Supper Club by Lara Williams

Spring by Ali Smith

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin

Skin by Liam Brown

Flames by Robbie Arnott

Read NITRB’s review of James’s debut

Before judging for the Not The Booker prize began, Nothing in the Rulebook’s own Ellen Lavelle read and reviewed James’s debut, uncovering a book that, yes, was indeed meta-fictional; but also one that was unique, with much inside its pages for so many people to enjoy. Lavelle wrote:

“It’s a book that makes the reader work hard, makes them complicit in the mystery. Piecing together the legacy of Ezra Maas means piecing together the book, tracing the ghosts behind the lines.”

Read NITRB’s review here.

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