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The Man Booker goes East

The Man Booker goes East

A cluster of Man Bookerites were speaking at the recent Jaipur Festival of Literature. Among them was Margaret Atwood and if you had ever wondered whether this stylistically diverse Man Booker winner (2000) might try her hand at yet more genres, she definitively ruled some things out. ‘There are a number of things which I haven't done and wouldn't put my teeth into,’ she said, ‘like the Western novel or the 'Mills and Boons' kind of romantic fiction.’ Fair enough. What might upset some fanfiction types though is that she went on to claim that ‘I can't write about classic science fiction; about another planet. I also can't write about fantasy and I'm not good at dragons.’ So while an Atwood Game of Thrones might be a marvellous prospect, it isn’t going to happen. 

Marlon James was another Man Bookerite at Jaipur. As the second Caribbean novelist (after V.S. Naipaul in 1971) to win the prize he noted the big change in the intervening 44 years: ‘Earlier, Caribbean literature was mostly in reference to the Empire. Most of those writers were born in the period of British Empire. I wasn’t. And I couldn’t care less about it. It has had no impact on my writing. For us, the big cultural influence has been the United States. We grew up taking our independence for granted, taking the British absence for granted.’ That said, he then went on to contradict himself. ‘We are still writing about the same things’, he said. ‘We are still writing about struggle for our identity. We are still writing about self-determination. We are still trying to figure out the good and the bad. We are still trying to make sense of the mess our colonisers left us.’  What he didn’t do was hazard a guess as to whether the Caribbean novelists of 2059 would have found new themes to those of their literary father and grandfather.

            Readers might remember that only a week or so ago James took racism and wider prejudice to task in a video that went viral. So it was interesting to see him perform another piece of Jamesian self-contradiction: ‘I think the writer enters a dangerous zone by becoming an activist. Didacticism will destroy a book. Writers should try to do their job and let activists do theirs.’ He’s a hard man to fathom.

Colm Tóibín was in India too. He made humorous reference to the way literature has the power to increase a male novelist’s masculinity. Colm Tóibín recalled his younger self as a wimp with a stammer and without a morsel of athletic ability. His family, he said, thought ‘that I was sort of stupid’. In 1999, however, when he was first shortlisted for the Man Booker for The Blackwater Lightship, he found he had suddenly gained star athlete status back in Ireland. ‘I am not making this part up,’ he said. ‘A man stopped his car and somebody who looked like his son, got out, and went ‘Yeaaah’ as though I'd won some sporting competition.’ Perhaps to spare the writer’s precious hands there was no fist bumping.

Back in Britain, brave, brave (or foolhardy) A.S. Byatt – Man Booker winner in 1990 with Possession − has risked the wrath of the world’s legion of Harry Potter fans by taking pot-shots at their mental horizons. The boy wizard’s stories, she says, are ‘written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons and the exaggerated − more exciting, less threatening − mirror world of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.’ Not done yet, she continued that the Harry Potter books spoke to a generation that had ‘not known or cared about mystery . . . They are the inhabitants of urban jungles, not the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing.’ It is fair to suppose that Byatt is herself currently the subject of a thousand ‘Expelliarmus’ curses from outraged Potterites.