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The need to read flexibly

The need to read flexibly

Speaking at Futurebook Live, The Bookseller’s annual publishing conference, Gaby Wood the Booker Prize literary director, reiterated that the prize has readers in the foreground. “It is for readers first, writers second, and publishers third – and they are all completely interrelated”, she said in comments provoked by this year’s judges’ decision to ignore the rules and split the prize between Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. “Our job really is to find readers – and by that I mean people on the panel [of judges],” she commented. “Are those readers receptive to what is going on that’s most exciting in writing? Do we need to change the rules if that’s not the case?” The Booker Prize administrators need “just to be a little bit flexible. . .” What this might mean in terms of selecting the next Booker Prize panel – and most of the 2020 judges will already have been signed up – remains to be seen. Asked about this year’s split decision Wood noted, diplomatically, that she personally “wouldn’t have been for it” and for many reasons, not least that “I think it’s really upsetting for the losers; it’s much worse to not win when two people have.”

Atwood, one of the authors in the eye of the storm, recently expressed a different take on the nature of literary prizes. The climate crisis trumps everything, she reckons. “Extinction Rebellion? I’m very happy to see them show up after all these years because the biologists and people in the environmental field have been saying this for a very long time,” she noted with more than a touch of asperity. “It’s extremely pleasing to see these young people taking hold of that, understanding it, and pointing out that if people don’t fix this particular crisis, stuff like book prizes are going to become very, very irrelevant, very quickly.”

Evaristo, meanwhile, is one of the authors who can be heard on the Christmas airwaves talking about a favourite novel and a story they have written which imagines what happened to the characters after the original tale ends: she has gone for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Elif Shafak, a fellow Booker Prize shortlistee, plumps for Anna Karenina. Their 15-minute talks can be heard on The Essay: Open Endings on BBC Radio Three on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day respectively.

The production line that turns Booker Prize novels into films or television series runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The latest book to go through the mincer to emerge on screen is Richard Flanagan’s 2014 winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The novel, about the depredations of Allied prisoners forced by the Japanese to build the Burma-Thai railway during the Second World War is being adapted into a television series. Just to keep the project in the Booker Prize family, Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant, the Australian director and writer who will be in charge of things, have just been working of the adaptation of another Booker Prize winner, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. They clearly know what they like.

Congratulations to Edna O’Brien, who has just won the £40,000 David Cohen Prize, a lifetime achievement award given every two years. Previous winners include a host of Booker Prize greats, among them, V.S. Naipaul, Hilary Mantel and Julian Barnes. While O’Brien has never won the Booker Prize, she has been associated with it from its early years: as a judge in 1973 when the prize was awarded to J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. To close the circle, one of the David Cohen judges was the three-time Man Booker Prize nominated Jon McGregor.