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The mythical Man Booker book

The mythical Man Booker book

A curious point was raised about literary prizes in a recent piece in the Guardian, stating that “The Man Booker prize, in particular, has been charged with dictating the sort of novel that is thought to be worth publishing and promoting, thereby influencing the books authors have felt compelled to write over the last 50 years.” It is a contentious claim even given its apocryphal provenance. It is hard to see what, for example, Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings – larded with Jamaican patois – has in common with Hilary Mantel's historically rich Wolf Hall or Yann Martel's fabular Life of Pi or Ian McEwan's semi-farce Amsterdam. These, just four past Man Booker winners, are about as different from one another as novels can be. A “Man Booker book” is a more indefinable concept than many believe: women have won 17 times, experimental books (Peter Carey's comma-free A True History of the Kelly Gang for example) as well as more traditional forms have triumphed, historical fiction has won and so has contemporary fiction, big books (Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries) have competed with short ones (McEwan's Amsterdam), Indian, Canadian, Australian, American and Irish writers have seen off British ones and vice versa . . . not much of a pattern to be discerned except for the excellence of the writing.

Another former Man Booker winner, J.M. Coetzee Disgrace (1999) is the topic of an article that wonders whether the book could have been published today, in the age of #MeToo. The book's central character (it does not have a hero) is Lurie, a university professor who has an affair with one of his students – who does so reluctantly. So a man with power pressurises a young woman into sexual contact. “If Disgrace . . . were to release today, it would probably be destroyed. It will not be banned, it will not be so lucky as to receive notoriety. It will just vanish,” reckons the author and critic Manu Joseph. “There is too much anger at men like Lurie . . . that work will be doomed, it will not be celebrated by influential women or even by conscientious modern men who constantly try to guess how to be good men.” Perhaps with black dress or white rose protests in mind, he says, “Today, the book will be punished in devastating and organized ways.” Which leaves, thinks Joseph, Coetzee and his contemporaries with a dilemma: “They may flee to safer stories. Or, they can choose the option of courage. You need more courage to go against the elites of your own profession than to tweet moralistic rebukes to heads of state.”

An addendum to the Golden Man Booker Prize, the one-off gong being awarded this year to the public's choice of the greatest ever Man Booker winner. It is worth remembering that the prize has been shared twice in its history: Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton both won in 1974 while Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth split the 1992 prize (a decision that led to a rule change stipulating there can only ever be one winner). So Robert McCrum and Kamila Shamsie, the judges responsible for picking the best winner of the 1970s and 1990s respectively to put before the public, have extra work to do. It all gets complicated: a prize to celebrate the Man Booker's 50th birthday has 51 winning books to choose from and the first award was in 1969 not 1968 because it selected from books first published the previous year. Hopefully that's clear.

Just to show that the path from page to screen is not always an easy one, Tim Winton's 2002 shortlisted Dirt Music is having a torrid time. Filming was due to start last year but cast “availability issues” delayed that happening and now the time limit on $2 million of funding by Screen Australia has passed and the offer has lapsed. To get things up and running the producers will have to reapply for funds. Numerous starry names have been attached to the project in the past, from Rachel Weisz and Russell Crowe to Colin Farrell and Heath Ledger, but now no cast members have been confirmed. A spokesman explained that: “Dirt Music is a high-profile screen project with many moving elements.” What he didn't explain is what happens when those elements grind to a halt and start to rust.