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Writing for gold

Writing for gold

With the Olympics now over, various countries are surveying their performances in the great sportfest and assessing whether the funding their various hop, skip and jump teams received was well targeted. One Australian organisation has done an interesting piece of compare-and-contrast research to see how their sports funding measured up to their arts funding. Australia won 29 medals at Rio 2016 and the Australian Institute of Sport poured in $380 million. That equates to about $12 million per medal (team GB’s much, ahem, greater number of gongs worked out at £5.5 million each). Looking at culture prizes (the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel prize for literature, the Cannes Film Festival, Academy Awards and BAFTA for film, the Grammy and BRIT Awards for music, and the Game Awards for video games) for the years 2015 and 2016 threw up 82 Australian winners and nominees (the equivalent of gold, silver and bronze). Unfortunately the sample years did not include Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North and nor could they claim honorary Australian and two time Man Booker Prize winner (and a longlistee this year) J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel victory. Nevertheless in these cultural Olympics, the average ‘cost’ of a medal worked out at approximately $8m. Clear evidence that dollar for dollar (and pound for pound) the arts give better value for money than sport.

Canada, 20th in the Olympics medals table with 22 gongs, has some bona fide cultural gold medal winners, among them their Man Booker Prize laureates Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel. Martel was recently asked how he viewed Life of Pi’s perennial appeal: ‘I'm still surprised,’ he responded, ‘there are lots of good books out there, better books even, that don't get the attention Life of Pi got.’ The reasons for the book’s continued resonance, he reckons, are simple: ‘The novel came out at the right time, and the tone – probing, not dripping with irony – and the subject matter (the nature of reality, what it all means) struck a chord.’ The much travelled Martel also came up with a rather wonderful definition of the world as ‘a big, beautiful place, a Russian novel of a planet’ and, he added, ‘I still take pleasure in reading that planet’.

The great Marilynne Robinson may have missed out on last year’s Man Booker Prize after making the longlist but if there were any hint of envy in her personality she clearly suppressed it. Robinson has just won the Dayton literary peace prize. The citation lauded her ‘luminous, deeply moving prose’ which ‘explores the causes of strife in a family, in a community, and in the world, while ultimately demonstrating the universal healing power of reconciliation and love’. Robinson responded to the news with a brief encomium as to the importance of the novel: ‘I have had the privilege of seeing for myself how books live in the world, how readily they can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries, how important they are in sustaining a human conversation through and despite the frictions that arise among nations, how intensely they can be taken to heart anywhere.’ It may be hard to live up to but that’s no bad clarion call for all aspiring novelists.

Four days after the announcement of the Man Booker Prize shortlist (on 13 September) the Shorelines Literature Festival starts. The festival is part of Estuary 2016, a two-week celebration of the Thames estuary in literature, art, music and film. Among those taking part is the Man Booker Prize longlistee Deborah Levy and her talk, on 18 September, is entitled: ‘All at sea: hauntings and hazards in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf’ and will cover the themes of hazards, light and time in the 1927 novel. Woolf’s book, modernist to its core, is written largely in stream-of-consciousness form. By the time she delivers her talk Levy will know her Man Booker Prize fate and, depending on the outcome, attendees might well reflect on Levy’s own stream-of-consciousness inner monologue.