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The Man Booker prizes: what's in a name?

The Man Booker prizes: what's in a name?


For those worried that the recently-announced merger between Tesco and the Booker Group might mean a Frankenstein's monster renaming of the prize to the Man Tesco-Booker Prize for Fiction, or some such, can rest easy. The Booker Prize Foundation, which oversees both the Man Booker Prize and the Man Booker International prizes is an entirely separate charitable entity. The Booker McConnell funded the prize from 1968 but the Man Group took over in 2002. The financial goings on of grocery companies will have no effect on the prizes whatsoever – unless, of course, novelists choose to write about them.



Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang's Man Booker International Prize-winning The Vegetarian, recently gave a brilliantly simple test to judge whether a translation is good or not: ‘it is when the critics or the ordinary readers are saying very similar things about the book in translation that they are saying about it in Korean’ (Kang is Korean). At a time when translation is assuming an ever greater role, thanks in part to prizes such as the Man Booker International and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Smith went on to point out why translation is so important: ‘Even if it is the greatest book in the world, people won’t be able to appreciate it, if it is in a rubbish translation; but by the same equivalence, the best translation in the world is not going to make a mediocre book read like genius.’



Everyone is exercised by the new Trumpian regime in America, even Man Booker winners. Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker winner in 2004 with The Line of Beauty, recently made the point, when discussing the Trump government's crackdown on LGBT rights, that all the sound and fury might yet signify nothing: ‘It’s very hard to gauge the strength of the anti-gay feeling isn’t it?’ he noted. ‘Sometimes when it's put to the test, as it was with France and the question of gay marriage a couple of years ago, there was a massive reaction against it. There, it is supposedly a very catholic country, although otherwise, French people are famously sort of sophisticated in questions of their sexuality. So one never quite knows what’s lurking at the hands of the right sort of demagogic person…Who knows what’s going to happen.’ In the brave new world where everything has been turned upside down, perhaps Americans might end up being more sophisticated than the French.



Paul Beatty, the current Man Booker winner, is another to take a less strident line than many. As he told a recent interviewer when discussing Trump's America: ‘This is nothing new. To me that’s the part that feels disingenuous. When people go, I don’t recognise this place. And I’m like, where have you been? That’s the part that bothers me,’ he says. ‘With the police violence – people are like, oh I didn’t know. And it’s like people have been putting this in your face for ages and all of a sudden now . . . why now?’ Of course the thought that this intolerance is deeply ingrained is hardly a cheery one. But then Beatty is not currently in a cheery mood about America. ‘Maybe I just don’t feel accepted, so I don’t feel hurt. I’m not a patriot. It’s just my home, where I grew up, but hurt, no. I don’t have that parental relationship to the place. It’s like if my mom kicked me out of my house, I’m hurt. I don’t have that relationship to the government, to the people. I don’t.’



One Man Booker winner who isn't taking things sanguinely is Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question, 2010). In what he calls ‘a fury of disbelief’ he has written a 50,000 word novella called Pussy  telling the story of Prince Fracassus, heir to the Duchy of Origen – a realm of golden-gated skyscrapers and casinos – who passes his boyhood watching reality TV shows and fantasising about sex workers. The book will be published in April. ‘Fiction can’t match reality at the moment,’ says Jacobson. ‘Satire is an important weapon in the fight against what is happening and Trump looks like a person who is particularly vulnerable to derision.’