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The University of Man Booker

The University of Man Booker

This column tries to keep self-back-patting to a minimum but it nevertheless feels a warm glow at the news that the Man Booker Prize is itself to be the subject of an academic research project. Brook Miller, associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota Morris, is to create a digital research database titled, in proper academic parlance, “Booker Watch: Prestige Culture and Literary Scholarship”. Miller hopes that his database will show both how the types of novels chosen by the Man Booker Prize have changed over the decades and how the Man Booker imprimatur has altered the way the novels have been received. The initial results should be ready this time next year. “By studying institutions that promote prestige culture, you can learn a lot about the canonisation process”, says Miller. We love that word, “canonisation”.

“Is the great novel dead?” asked Tim Parks (Man Booker International Prize judge 2013) in a recent piece. In short, he answered, no. But it is changing. Parks contrasted the pre-internet reading age when, without electronic distractions, people could devote attention and time to complicated and multi-layered writing, with the current age when much reading is conducted in short tranches of time. Authors from Dickens and Henry Green to Faulkner wrote works that can't just be put down and picked up as if there were no gap in between. Things have changed, says Parks, and he makes a prediction: “the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out”.

A nasty moment for anyone who recently stumbled across the headline: “The youngest Booker winner and a history of suicide.” In all the innumerable articles about Man Booker queen Eleanor Catton, none, surely, had mentioned that she had self-harming tendencies? And why would such a young, successful and grounded novelist want to do away with herself? There are many dark passages in The Luminaries but readers had assumed these were simply the product of the writer's imagination. It emerged, however, that the sentence on an Irish radio station's website flagging one of its broadcasts referred to an interview with Catton followed by one with the author of a book about suicide. Breathe out, two, three, four . . .

Embracing its history as a literary outpost for expats Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, welcomed the illustrious judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize 2015.  Marina Warner CBE, Nadeem Aslam, Edwin Frank, Elleke Boehmer and Wei-chin Ouyang were all met with an appropriately warm reception.

Further to Salman Rushdie being named as the winner of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize, Harold Pinter's widow, Antonia Fraser (Booker judge 1971) recalls a cricket match during the time Rushdie was in hiding from the Ayatollah's fatwa: “Every summer, Harold would bring his cricket team, the Gaeities, for a match against the Guardian at Gunnersbury . . .  Salman asked if he could come. And of course he brought two members of Special Branch with him. Later, The Guardian was short of a player, and Salman fielded for them. The ball, in its devilish way, sought him out, and every time he rose up to catch it, I saw the Special Branch duo rise to their feet as though he were under threat.” Because it was cricket rather than World Cup footie no jihadist rushed out and bit the author of Midnight's Children either.