Wednesday 18 September 2013

The Man Booker, Raised and Transformed: In Celebration Of A Prize for the 21st Century World

Disclosure: I was made a trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation in spring 2013.

The judges of the 2013 Man Booker Prize have selected what I believe to be the most exciting longlist and shortlist in the prize’s history. Inclusive, innovative, wide-ranging in voice, structure, tone, form and setting, the 2013 Man Booker has embraced the realities of the changing outer world and the infinite possibilities of the art form and shown how each affects the other.

Suddenly, they’re down with the brown. They’re sisters. They’ve gone global. The result? A skilled, bright, fascinating selection that has drawn praise from all quarters.

EDIT: and here's the winner: Eleanor Catton, for her novel The Luminaries:

Photo taken at the 2013 Booker ceremony
15th October 2013
The judges have read without prejudice, with joy, without false distinctions, with heart, without slackening their critical judgement and with full capacity to be inspired, to be moved, to be affected and elevated. Their choices for 2013 are a tribute to the written word, through which we understand unspoken words, thoughts, feelings, motivations; and also to the fictional world, through which understand the real one. The judges’ 2013 Man Booker choices reflect a new reality in which stories and their telling, authors and their ideas, are global. The judges have recognised that even with great diversity of reference, author, context and character there is one unifying and universal force: the passion of readers.

The Booker was launched in 1969 and while its aim was to reward excellence in fiction, it was open to British, Irish, Commonwealth and Zimbabwean writers only.

The Man Booker Prize is stepping up and now joyfully seeks and celebrates the best of fiction written in English and published in the UK, starting with the 2014 prize - although the transformation has already begun, without our direction, in this year’s choices.

These ‘changes’ are nothing more than a vindication of the Man Booker’s original vision, properly fulfilled: to reward the best work of fiction in the English language. The nationality of the author is unimportant, as it should be: writers of all nationalities live all over the world and are inspired by that world, as are readers. The authors’ skill, their vision and their gifts in English literature are what matter, wherever they put pen to paper and whatever the view from their study window. This ‘expansion’ is nothing more than a recognition of great talent and one great work and an acknowledgement that talent in the English language is obviously not confined to Britain, Ireland, the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe but may be found anywhere.

The behind-the-scenes tweaks to the system have been more than eighteen months in the making and were developed with the full involvement of industry professionals, writers, readers, booksellers and many others. The number of judges and the fact that only UK publishers can submit books are unchanged. However, the fear that judges will be overloaded with books has been considered and dealt with. There is a new system of submissions according to which publishers have had books longlisted within the previous five years. Of course, publishers who have had no previous longlistings are also able to make a submission. The convention of allowing all publishers to propose up to five further novels for judges to consider considering also stands, as does the judges’ privilege in calling in any book which has not been submitted but which they feel should be considered.

The new system is so rigorous, so mindfully conceived, so fair and with so many variables worked out to limit the burden on judges and ensure fairness for publishers that it resembles a cross between the notes for a massive multiplayer Mah Jong game and an early instruction leaflet for the world’s first abacus. So please trust them, but don’t ask me to explain it or I’ll fluff it and be off the Board of Trustees before you can say ‘impostor syndrome.’

Let me also point out that being asked to judge the ManBooker Prize is optional and is a joy. It’s not military service. My advice to judges who’ve been approached, but who don’t want to do it, is this: say no. Say no to the discussions, the books, the posh lunches, the increased social status, the networking opportunities, the discovery of new authors’ work, the new friends, the enhanced career standing, the connection to one of the most significant literary prizes in the world and the amazing party at the end. No problem. We’ll ask someone else.

There is very little chance that judges will be ‘swamped’ by all manner of stuff sent over in Jiffy bags from every Post Office in the world. Works will be submitted by the authors’ UK publishers and the overall number of submissions will be balanced out by the new submissions system, so we do not expect an increase in the number of books judges must read. There are relatively few American authors published in the UK so there is no question of UK and Commonwealth authors who might otherwise be considered being squeezed out. 

And now, having kept my diplomacy for a page and a half, it’s time to open a vein and spray some venom.

This is a discussion about literature, not a debate about immigration. This is great news about a prize rewarding literary excellence, not a committee discussing border controls. This is an interesting and joyful cultural shift, not a xenophobic, petty, stand-up knock-down election debate about outsiders or identity or dilution or being threatened by foreigners who are going to muscle in, warp ‘our’ image and take all ‘our’ jobs/prizes/power/whatever. Identity has always altered with context. Identity shifts, it expands, it accommodates and grows deeper according to the surrounding reality. This is not a dilution but a development; not a fundamental weakening but a positive evolution. And if the lurking fear, behind all the bluster, is that perhaps British and Commonwealth writers are not good enough to survive this new world with all its new voices, I say: what low self-esteem, what a boring inferiority complex. Get over it.

Whingeing, resistance and doom-mongering are natural human reactions to change. I must say, I am invigorated by this fauxtroversy because it shows that people are surprised. This venerable prize, this career-making boon, this rich-making establishment honour, The Man Booker Prize, is leading the debate. The rest of the industry and the media are now thinking, analysing, reacting, regrouping, reframing. Critics and snipers have a choice: embrace change or fear it; go with the future world or whinge at home in crabby insularity; welcome others with grace or ostracise them with bitterness; step up your game or get off the pitch; get with the programme or be left behind.