Arifa Akbar: Is the latest Man Booker scandal really about nationality - or rivalry?
The week in books
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Friday 20 September 2013
By the time Man Booker prize executives gathered the media for a press conference this week to announce "changes to the rules", we already knew what was coming – it had been unofficially disclosed and discussed. Ladbrokes had gone so far as to lay down odds. For days, commentators had been railing against US authors being included in the competition from 2014. Shock, horror, the AMERICANS WERE COMING. Were they going to spray their scent all over our beloved prize?
When the announcement came, it clarified that the Booker wouldn't just be opening up to American authors, alongside those from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth – but to any novelist writing in English who is published in the UK.
I don't think the real scandal lay in debates around nationality, though. On the morning of the Booker announcement, another press release winged its way to journalists. This one was from the Folio Prize to say that it would issue a statement – in response to Man Booker's statement – and that its founder, Andrew Kidd, would be available for comment.
This moment of PR intersection between two prizes – one old, one new – suggested that Man Booker's rule-change might have less to do with the "Americans" and more to do with a rivalry closer to home. The Folio Prize is the new kid on the block, originally created in response to Man Booker's 2011 shortlist, which it condemned for going against its own founding objectives. Several writers came out in support when it launched as "the first major English-language prize open to writers around the world" (including the Americans!).
So is this latest move Man Booker's attempt to enter the same terrain and kill off the new competition even before it has got off the ground? Whisperers might say as much. But are its administrators really so insecure that the creation of a prize with a similar brief threatens them so fearfully? Of course not, says Ion Trewin, the Man Booker's director. This move had been in discussion for years – take a look at minutes of the prize foundation's meetings long before 2011. Yet the media cannot and should not be blamed (as it is by some) for "concocting" bad feeling between these two parties.
Mr Kidd's statement, when it came, seemed like a barely veiled barb. Our international prize "was created to fill a perceived gap rather than imply that others should adopt our model". "Others" being Man Booker, presumably. Mr Trewin dismissed this outright, saying: "We're not adopting their model."
Both parties, when asked, say there is no animosity between them: Mr Kidd concedes that while the prize was created as a disgruntled response to Man Booker's 2011 shortlist, it has approved of Booker shortlists since then. The more literary prizes, the merrier, he adds. Mr Trewin echoes this sentiment. Yet one cannot help but feel that there are layers of unspoken injury and defensiveness between them. Perhaps they need to sit down in the same room and talk it out.
In the history of the Man Booker Prize's many earthquakes, the Richter scale of this latest wobble doesn't feel earth-shattering but, in some ways, it could be defining. Whether it is the case or not, Man Booker is, arguably, perceived by some as following or competing with the Folio Prize. This may have a significant impact on its reputation, both home and abroad.
Then there is the angst of those who don't want to see it extend its boundaries. Will this lead to another disgruntled response? Perhaps the creation of a new British prize for British people? That wouldn't be a bad thing, either. As Mr Kidd and Mr Trewin agree, the more literary prizes there are, the merrier, and long may they all live and grow.
Settle down for a good read: big books are back
It's not just the Man Booker shortlisted The Luminaries that dares to tells its story at length (1,000 pages, in fact). Door-stoppers are well and truly back: Donna Tartt's forthcoming tale stretches to 800 pages, while Neel Mukherjee's much-anticipated novel, The Lives Of Others, out in May, runs to more than 650, and Orenda by the Canadian, Joseph Boyden just longlisted for the Giller prize, is more than 500 pages. It is a welcome return and defies the notion that we now have Twitter-sized concentration spans.
Pratchett blogs about dementia
It is welcome news that Terry Pratchett, the bestselling author who seems to have done more than almost any other single person to raise awareness of dementia, has begun writing a blog on the subject – his own reflections and society's mis/perceptions.
Here is a snippet of his first entry, in which he talks about the need to stop "pussy-footing" around the illness, and the urgency for funding: "Every person with dementia has a unique story to tell, and this blog should tell as many as it can. Words need to be put down before they run dry ... or run out."
There is a long and fine literary tradition of writing about illness (Virginia Woolf turned it into an art form) and I have no doubt that Pratchett will add to it with his inimitable frankness and quirky, irreverent humour. His blog for Alzheimer's Research is at www.dementiablog.org.
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