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Marlon James and the curse of the white woman

Marlon James and the curse of the white woman

The reigning Man Booker laureate Marlon James has been causing a bit of a stir. At a recent event he criticised writers of colour for giving in to publishing industry pressure and aiming their books at a specific target audience: ‘We writers of colour spend way too much time pandering to the white woman,’ he said, ‘. . . astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui, porn for certain publications.’ This rather strange statement came about because, in Britain, for example, women are responsible for buying two thirds of the books sold. He continued: ‘If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now.’ The fact that he didn't pander was, he reckons, in part responsible for the 78 rejections he received for his first novel John Crow's Devil. One white woman he does approve of, however, is the Duchess of Cornwall, who presented him with the Man Booker Prize. ‘I saw she was reading my book so I asked her, ‘Have you been to Jamaica?’ and she said, ‘Oh please, I knew Bob Marley.’ She went up a few degrees in cool for me then.’

Last week's column mentioned the 2014 Man Booker winner Richard Flanagan's opposition to a proposed measure by the Australian government to relax book import restrictions. His influential opposition has become even more potent now that he has been joined by Australia's other Man Booker winners, Peter Carey (double winner, 1988 and 2001) and Thomas Keneally (1982). This formidable triumvirate have penned an open letter to the prime minister: should the measures go through, they said, ‘Australia will become, as it was in the 1960s, a dumping ground for American and English books, and we will risk becoming as we once were a colony of the minds of others.’ The Man Booker victors went on to explain that the existing import restrictions ‘are what allowed us and so many other Australians to become writers. These rules and rights are what enabled a golden age of Australian writing to occur. And it is our hope that this time of great literary achievement is an early chapter in the ever growing story of Australian literature, and not – if this decision stands – the end.’ Rousing stuff. Just how Malcolm Turnbull will react to his highbrow opponents remains to be seen. If he pushes ahead watch out for villains named Turnbull in messrs Flanagan, Carey and Keneally's next novels.

Patrick deWitt, Man Booker shortlisted in 2011 for The Sisters Brothers, recently said something all aspiring novelists should have tattooed on their forehead. Discussing the follow-up to his first novel, Ablutions, he said that he wrote a book set in the world of investment banking: ‘It was a complete book – 300-odd pages and up – but re-reading it, I discovered that it wasn’t up to scratch.’ So into the bin it went. Why such ruthlessness? ‘The danger is not necessarily writing a bad book, but writing a book that’s just okay. A C-grade book. You want to avoid that.’

Sunjeev Sahota, Man Booker shortlisted this year for The Year of the Runaways, is in the running for another prize. He is one of four shortlistees for the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2015. Sahota is a very spring-chickenish 34. The winner will be announced on December 10th by the perennial Man Booker favourite Sarah Waters.