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Triumphs and tantrums: the Man Booker Prize returns for its 49th year

BySophie Whitehead

Oct 12, 2017

With a simple promise of choosing the best original novel in the opinion of its judges, the Man Booker Prize will be awarded this month for the 49th time in its history. As the most prestigious UK literary award, it is a great way to shed light on some of the best recent releases which can easily  be missed. With a £50,000 prize and a guaranteed increase in readership for the winner, this is a great deal for authors and readers alike.

This year’s six shortlisted novels offer an interesting range of reading material – from well-established author Ali Smith, Autumn, a topical release about post-Brexit Britain, to Mohsin Hamid, with Exit West, a novel addressing the current global refugee crisis.

Of course, the shortlist is probably  just as widely discussed – if not more so – on the basis of who didn’t make the cut. There has been outrage over the exclusion of Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, for which fans have been waiting 20 years. Critics were also surprised when two of the year’s most lauded novels, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway, didn’t feature.

The Booker Prize is famed for its capacity to shock with its choices. With a diverse panel of annually changing judges, it is no surprise that the nominations are sometimes striking.

Some are very critical of the motivations that lead judges to include (and leave out) certain texts from the shortlist. Edward St. Aubyn, in his 2014 novel Lost for Words, details a panel of judges for a literary prize whose decisions are driven by a web of self-interested motivations. Although this particularly scathing take on the world of the judging panel is perhaps too pessimistic – and maybe motivated by Aubyn’s near-miss in claiming the Booker Prize himself back  in 2006 – there is something to be said for the idea that the judges may not always base their decisions on the acumen of the texts.

The Telegraph’s Anthony Cummins links the notion of different intentions to a broader attempt to be inclusive, with what he describes as “a politely balanced shortlist.” He views the choice to have an equal number of male and female authors on the shortlist as politically motivated, because of course it is too absurd a notion that the judges could have chosen female authors because they were – shock, horror! – talented. Even if there is some truth in the idea that judges feel pressured to be more inclusive, is that such a bad thing? 2017 is shockingly only the third year that the prize has been opened up to writers of any nationality (provided they are writing in English and published in the UK) proving that the prize still has a lot of work to do before it can be called inclusive. We need to celebrate changes to conventional authorship, rather than question the motives.

There is also the widely-regarded opinion that the prize is becoming less prestigious, kick-started by 2011 chairman Stella Rimington, who claimed that she wanted “readable books” for people to “buy and read”, not “buy and admire.” Whilst her comments are certainly poorly phrased, I think there is something to the notion of readability. The adverse reaction to the notion that the books selected are more accessible, reeks of the haughty privilege that surrounds literature and subsequently puts many people off, and that is something that the Man Booker Foundation has the power to change.

Generally, the paucity of criterion laid out by the prize means that there will always be those dissatisfied. Personally, I find the increasingly diverse range of authors included on the list encouraging; I haven’t given up on the Man Booker Prize just yet.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday, 17th October 2017. 

Photo credit: Digitalwunder via Pixabay

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