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A giant step for Man

A giant step for Man

The literary world does like a touch of excitement and the news that after 18 years the Man Group is stepping down as the sponsor of the Man Booker prizes caused an epic intake of breath among reading folk and a scarcely less audible exhalation. Shortly afterwards came much speculation and gossip – some informed, most not. Man’s decision was, assorted commentators opined, due to criticism from Sebastian Faulks or disgruntlement about Americans being allowed to compete. Neither was the case. There were some truths underlying the speculation, however. Helena Kennedy’s words of thanks to the Man Group for their largesse during a period of economic entrenchment were heartfelt. Man’s pride and pleasure in being associated with the prize for so long were sincere. It is worth noting too that during a period when many other literary prizes have seen changes of sponsor and therefore name – the Whitbread to the Costas, the Folio to Rathbone, the Orange to Women’s Prize via Baileys, the Samuel Johnson to Baillie Gifford – the prize’s 18 years with the same Man moniker have been exceptional. That stability is a reflection of the esteem of the prize. Some voices have also suggested that in these straitened times the prizes would find it hard to attract a new sponsor: in fact the Booker Prize Foundation has known about the Man Group’s plans to realign their funding plans for some time and is already at an advanced stage of negotiation with a new sponsor – an announcement will hopefully take place fairly soon. Both the Man Booker Prize and the Man Booker International Prize will run in 2019 under the Man banner and then face the future under a new sponsor but with the same remit: celebrate, reward and spread the word about the best contemporary fiction can offer.


Speaking in India, where he appeared at the Jaipur literary festival, Yann Martel pointed out the often overlooked truth of being a successful author. Winning the Man Booker Prize and the subsequent sales (12 million worldwide and counting) and film version have turned him into a gilded being in the public’s perception. The truth of the matter is more prosaic, he says: “The book has been translated into 55 languages, including seven Indian languages. Creatively, however, life hasn’t changed much. Life of Pi created a lot of noise in my life. However, all I had to do was close the door of my studio and write another book, one after the other. My children were born after the book was published. They do not care if daddy wrote Life of Pi. They are not particularly impressed.” A writer will always be a writer rather than a celebrity, he suggests, and no amount of fame will fill the blank page every novelist must confront daily.


Congratulations to Anna Burns, who has just been shortlisted for America’s prestigious National Book Critics Circle awards for Milkman. It is one of 31 books in six categories, ranging from fiction to criticism to autobiography. Burns finds herself in familiar company since fellow nominees include her 2018 Man Booker sparring partner Rachel Kushner (with The Mars Room) and a former shortlistee, Zadie Smith for her essay collection Feel Free. The critics (and some editors and other literary bods) of the prize’s title are legion: no fewer than 750 of them. That’s enough to make a best-seller in some categories.


The news that the BBC will be celebrating the 300th anniversary of Robinson Crusoe has caused much fluttering in the dovecote. Daniel Defoe’s shipwreck story was published on 25 April 1719 and autre temps and all that, is now considered in some quarters to contain passages that are uncomfortably close to racism. These modern sensibilities were not Defoe’s as the BBC’s Head of Arts Jonty Claypole pointed out: “I don’t believe in censoring art which (also a member of the Man Booker advisory committee) h reflects the attitudes of the times in which it was produced. It allows us to understand change better,” he said. He went on to note: “I’m interested in a story that takes us from a book about an Englishman on a Caribbean island to a Caribbean islander, Marlon James, winning the Man Booker prize 300 years later.” “The Novels That Shaped Our World” airs in April.


Ben Okri takes a grim view of the modern world. Speaking ahead of the publication of his latest novel, The Freedom Artist, he pithily characterised the way things are: “The temperature of the world is high. Intolerable. We’re asphyxiating ourselves. The rhetoric, the lies, lies as truth, truth as lies. The blurring of our humanity, the narrowing of our humanity. Too much is going on that makes us unhappy. I think the quantity of neurosis in the world is getting bigger because of this stuff.” It may be a bleak analysis but it is hard to argue with. He also takes aim at the word “dystopian” – a go-to phrase amount many literary commentators: “I don’t use the word dystopian because it makes the mind lazy – it makes the mind assume it’s the same kind of thing, when in fact each one is different. What Kafka is doing in The Trial is different from what Orwell is doing in 1984, but they are both asking quivering questions about reality and the nature of the mind.” Maybe “quivering” could become an acceptable substitute.