Obituary: Martyn Goff CBE, OBE, novelist

BOOKSELLER and author who turned the Booker Prize into a national institution

Martyn Goff. Picture: Contributed

Martyn Goff, CBE, OBE, novelist, bookseller, administrator.

Born: 7 June, 1923, in London. Died: 25 March, 2015, aged 91

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Martyn Goff was the catalyst behind the rise in prominence and international success of the Booker Prize, the UK’s most prestigious book award.

Dubbed “Mr Booker”, Goff, a novelist and literary administrator in his own right, organised the Booker, now the Man Booker, Prize for more than three decades, upholding its high reputation as the world’s top fiction prize, while giving it a sexy cachet as an award steeped in controversy.

The Booker was created in 1969, to award a prize but ultimately to increase book sales. Despite widespread praise for its good intentions, its influence on sales remained modest. Goff tinkered with the format, while simultaneously engineering the press coverage. As one commentator declared, he was like “a happy wizard”, using “carefully placed leaks, official interviews, and, occasionally, strategic misinformation”.

Understanding the power of publicity, Goff was party to all of the in-fighting and bitchiness that surrounded the judges and their deliberations – on which he thrived, not least because he chose them in the hope of fireworks – and became a “master of tactical indiscretion” and a headline manipulator extraordinaire.

There was controversy from the outset; in 1971 Malcolm Muggeridge resigned halfway through because he felt most of the entries were nauseating, ill-written and pornographic. A year later the winner, John Berger, for G, declared that he would give half of his £5,000 prize money to the American Black Panthers. In 1974 judge Elizabeth Howard proposed a novel by her then husband, Kingsley Amis, for the short-list; it did not win but the public furore ensured greater coverage than ever before.

In 1976, chair of the panel Philip Larkin threatened to jump out of the window if Paul Scott’s novel Staying On didn’t win (it did). In 1985, the chair Norman St John Stevas, who “didn’t read everything, or possibly anything”, had told Goff that there was no way he was going to read “that high-falutin and pretentious rubbish”, only to change his mind when he realised that the tide of opinion was going against him.

In 1993, two judges successfully pulled Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting from the shortlist by threatening to walk out. Only six other Scots have been shortlisted: Gordon Williams, Muriel Spark, George Mackay Brown, Shena Mackay, Andrew O’Hagan and twice short-listed Ali Smith (one may or may not include “almost” Scots, William Boyd and Bernard MacLaverty).

Although there have been some noted Scottish judges including Allan Massie, Ian Jack, Alan Taylor and Shena Mackay, herself short listed in 1996, David Daiches, 1980 chair, and TV executive Sir Denis Forman, the 1990 chair, only one Scot has won: James Kelman in 1994 with How Late it Was, How Late. With Kelman’s victory came a storm of controversy, with the media and booksellers roundly denouncing the decision, one of the judges publicly slamming the book, and Salman Rushdie calling it “the wrong choice”.

Slowly, Goff increased the number of short-listed books and the number of judges each year and hit on the idea of celebrity judges alongside writers and academics; these have included Joanna Lumley, Nigella Lawson, Trevor McDonald, John Coldsteam, and comedians Alison L Kennedy and David Baddiel. Goff would sit in on the judges’ meetings and, when he felt the time was right, orchestrate an anonymous tip-off; Booker leaks became a fixture on the literary calendar and rows were customary.

Lumley said of her experience: “The so-called bitchy world of acting was a Brownies’ tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing.” One newspaper dubbed it “the Booker prize for friction”.

Sales rose but Goff predicted it would probably take a decade or so to have a real impact. It was not until William Golding’s Rites of Passage (1980) and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children the following year that the prize began to be taken seriously. Schindler’s Ark’s 1982 success sparked a row among the judges over whether it could really be considered a novel; it became the best-selling Booker ever.

When Goff retired in 2006, it was likened to Caesar Augustus retiring from the Roman empire as he had been the prize’s overseer, quality-controller, protector and defender.

Born in 1923 to Jacob and Janey Goff, Russian émigrés, he grew up in a large house in affluent Hampstead, north London. His father had arrived penniless but soon turned his fortunes around, selling furs to the major department stores including Harrods, Liberty and Selfridges.

Goff’s father had a drawing-room of literary classics but this was only for show. Goff once selected a work by Dostoevsky and took it upstairs to read. His father noticed the gap in the shelf and objected to his son’s reading anything so grown-up, and so expensively bound. By the age of 19, Goff had read the entire library, and after Clifton College, Bristol, won a place at Oxford to read English.

He opted, however, to join the RAF, becoming a wireless operator on Lancaster bombing missions over the Middle East during the war. Stationed in Jordan, he wrote to Siegfried Sassoon; he received a reply. Years later Goff learnt that Sassoon had written to Maynard Keynes, saying: “I’ve had writer’s block for two years. Now here’s an aerogram from an unknown airman somewhere in the western desert, praising my work, and I’ve started writing again.”

Demobbed, Goff was at a loose end, but following a trip to St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, he had an epiphany. Noticing some empty premises while on a stroll, he put a year’s rent down and then worked unpaid for two months at Zwemmers in Charing Cross Road, to learn the book trade. He opened his first shop in 1946 with two more in quick succession along the south coast. Visitors were horrified by a section audaciously labelled “Sex”, but the shops remained successful. He moved to Surrey in 1950, and bought an established bookshop, the Ibis, in Banstead. Goff believed that creative window displays brought in customers, as did personal service. His fame spread.

Over the years, he added to the stock, publishing nine novels, of which four were explicitly gay in theme. His first, The Plaster Fabric, was published in 1957, when homosexuality was still a crime. His publisher had said: “You know, this book could land both of us in the Old Bailey. You’re not worried?” Fortunately, John Betjeman, reviewing it for the Daily Telegraph, was wildly enthusiastic.

His second novel in the genre, The Youngest Director (1961), was cited by Angus Wilson as one of the books that changed the climate of opinion about homosexuality. It also brought him a fan letter from Rubio Lindroos, a Scandinavian; the couple later embarked upon a 36-year partnership, living in their Clapham house crammed with more than 10,000 books and more than 100 paintings and sculptures bought from Keith Vaughn, Graham Sutherland, John Minton and the 50s Soho-Bohemian crowd. Lindroos died in May 2014.

Goff remained a bookseller until 1970 when he took over as director of the National Book League (Book Trust), a charity dedicated to promoting the pleasures of reading. He earned much-needed revenue by taking over the running of book prizes, to which he gave a professional edge, and persuaded the Arts Council to fund a literary-fiction book club, the New Fiction Society, whose artistic directors included Sebastian Faulks. He also wrote reviews, lectured and served on numerous committees including several Arts Council committees and the executive committee of PEN. A sociable and approachable man, Goff was always happy to advise newcomers to the publishing world.