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The Man Booker Scrum

The Man Booker Scrum

The death of David Storey, winner of the then plain Booker prize in 1976 with Saville, reminds one of the rich, full lives some novelists had. Born in Wakefield in Yorkshire into a mining family, Storey chose art school rather than the pits ‒ and not just any art school, but the Slade in London. To pay his way Storey signed a 14-year contract to play professional rugby for Leeds RLFC, and commuted between London and Leeds to fulfil his split duties. When he graduated in 1956 he bought out the remainder of his rugby contract and turned to teaching. It was only the success of his novel This Sporting Life (for which he also wrote the screenplay for the hugely successful film) that allowed him to write full time. Who, writing professionally today, can match his varied trajectory, one wonders? Maybe Julian Barnes and Howard Jacobson moonlight at the weekends as willowy wingers for Saracens RFC.


Four years on from her Man Booker win with The Luminaries and it has become clear what Eleanor Catton, the youngest winner in the prize’s history, has been up to. Her new novel, Birnham Wood, a psychological thriller, has just been announced for later in the year. The story is set in a remote part of New Zealand where rich foreigners are ‘building fortress-like homes and stockpiling weapons in preparation for a coming global catastrophe’. Added to the mix are a guerrilla gardening group and an American billionaire. Readers of The Luminaries will remember the sore wrists that resulted from holding the whopping 265,000-word novel and will be relieved to know that Birnham Wood is slated at a svelte 80,000-100,000 words: it’s a haiku.


Prize season is now on us and where the Man Booker leads others follow. First and foremost among the year’s awards is, of course, the Man Booker International Prize, the shortlist for which is announced soon, 20 April. Some though, have already been decided. Ian McGuire, for example, has just scooped the Royal Society of Literature’s £10,000 Encore Award for second novels. The North Water, his brutal tale of the shenanigans on board a 19th-century whaling ship, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker. This time it saw off the competition, including another Man Booker nominee, Paul Kingsnorth, to grab the gong for “the nation’s favourite second novel”. The prize has a good provenance. Previous winners include a clutch of distinguished Man Bookerites, including Anne Enright, Ali Smith, Adam Foulds, Sunjeev Sahota and Neel Mukherjee.


Coincidentally, the RSL has also just voted in its new president – its 19th and the first woman to hold the role – none other than the chair of the 2015 Man Booker International judges, Dame Marina Warner. It should be remembered that Warner was once an accomplished novelist herself before giving up fiction for a distinguished career as a critic, academic and commentator: The Lost Father (1988) was shortlisted for the MB and The Leto Bundle (2000) was longlisted. She gives the lie to the old adage ‘Those who can do, those who can’t teach.’


Almost a year on since her shortlisting for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the accolades keep rolling in for Madeleine Thien. Her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing has just been shortlisted for the £20,000 Rathbone’s Folio Prize. The Folio Academy, a collection of literary bods ‒ writers, critics and academics and their ilk – came up with 62 books for the judges’ consideration and Thien was one of only eight to make the final reckoning. The winner will be announced on 24th May. Thien has doubled her chances by also making the cut for the £30,000 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange). It’s the 7 June for that one.