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Pepper spraying the Man Booker

Pepper spraying the Man Booker

The Man Booker Prize crops up in the most unlikely places. The latest, and truly bizarre sighting, was in a New Zealand courtroom. When a couple in New Plymouth on the North Island who had taken a drink or two started rowing at 2.20 am the police stepped in. What resulted was a constable being punched in the head and pepper spray being used to subdue the warring couple before they were arrested. In court the defence barrister commented somewhat drily of the feuding pair that ‘It's a love story which isn't going to win a Man Booker prize or anything.’ Who knows – a boy in a boat with a tiger (Life of Pi) and a president in a graveyard talking to ghosts (Lincoln in the Bardo) . . . stranger stories have won the Man Booker in the past.


Neel Mukherjee, Man Booker shortlisted in 2014 with The Lives of Others, always has surprises up his sleeve. He recently said of his non-novelist job as a critic that writing ten good book reviews a year – ones that lead the reader actually to buy the book he's reviewing – was a more difficult task than writing a novel. He also said that having having based his fiction so far on his home country of India he was done with the place for a while. Mukherjee, who has been resident in London for many years, said: ‘I don't want to write on India again, I think I'm done with writing about the country for a while. These could be famous last words.’ Indeed it sounds as if they are since he went on to say that, ‘A great part of your talent dies if you feel assimilated somewhere,’ and that ‘Feeling like a tourist in one's own country is not necessarily a bad thing.’


Richard Flanagan, the man who beat Mukherjee to the 2014 Man Booker with The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is another novelist who keeps one sitting up straight. In a recent interview he took aim at creative writing courses and the novelists who teach on them: ‘once you have tenure in creative writing you can make far more money as an academic than as a writer. It is very difficult to keep your relationship with the reader at the forefront of your mind. Malcolm Lowry said a writer is someone with readers. The moment you forget that you cease to be a writer and become an academic.’ With apologies to academics, that's not the worst of it though: ‘The next step is you to have carve a niche in academia. Find an identity as a Puerto Rican novelist or a transgender novelist.’ The endgame, he says, pointing at New York writing-school alumni, is sterility: ‘You see the rise of the Brooklyn class. They have nothing to say.’


The Waterstones Book of the Year 2017 seven-title shortlist sets up some intriguing battles. Man Booker winner George Saunders finds himself in direct competition with Philip Pullman (La Belle Sauvage) but also the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis's brief history of capitalism and 2013 chair of the Man Booker judges Robert Macfarlane's lament for our shrinking vocabulary The Lost Words. The winner, announced on 30 November, will not receive a hefty cheque, however, but ‘the committed backing of Waterstones shops and booksellers across the UK, as well as support online and through its Loyalty Card programme’.


A prize that does come with a financial reward is the International Dublin Literary Award (formerly the IMPAC) worth €100,000 euros. It has a startlingly large longlist of 150, chosen by libraries in 37 countries, and multiple Man Booker figures feature on it this year. To name just a few, former Man Booker winners James Kelman, Graham Swift, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan and Man Booker International winners Amos Oz and Han Kang are there alongside former shortlistees Sebastian Barry, Emma Donoghue and Rose Tremain. Given the odds, it is hard to imagine any of them are getting their hopes up just yet.