This week’s newsflash comes from Stationers’ Scholar, Lucy Roberson. Here, she looks at the recent news item which saw the Man Booker Prize widen its eligibility criteria.
The winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced on Tuesday 14th October as Richard Flanagan for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, published by Chatto & Windus. Flanagan is an Australian, which is interesting as this year was the first year where any author writing in English was allowed to enter. It has previously been for UK applicants only.
One of the judges, Sarah Churchwell, wrote an article in The Guardian about her experience on the judging panel this year. Churchwell is an American-born writer and academic, and has previously been on the judging panel of other prestigious awards, such as the Women’s Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also become a television personality from appearances on shows including Newsnight and Question Time.
Regarding the decision to allow applicants from other countries to enter the competition, Churchwell agrees with the decision:
I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passport an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.
This is surely a view which will be shared by many. Churchwell’s article is particularly interesting as it presents a couple of problems: one is that, for this role, the judges were required to read 156 novels from 94 publishing imprints. Churchwell states that, for just over six months, she had to read a novel a day, which is no mean feat.
There was a general feeling from the comments of readers at the conclusion of the article that this was not fair on the judges or the authors to cram so many books into such a short time period, and it couldn’t possibly allow each novel a fair amount of time and consideration. Churchwell sums it up when she remarks: ‘A strange cognitive effect emerges… spend too long in someone else’s mind and you feel rather as if you’re losing your own.’ So perhaps the current process of judging isn’t entirely optimal.
A Female Minority?
Churchwell also comments somewhat briefly on the possibility that sexism played a part in the selection of the ultimate winner of the prize as the panel only shortlisted three female writers out of thirteen. There were six judges on the panel: four male and two female.
She apologises that she could not ‘correct for institutional sexism’ in our society: ‘if out of those 156 books, publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systematic institutional sexism in our culture… the publishing culture reflects that’.
However, Churchwell read most of her books electronically, which she claims had the benefit of making the author anonymous, as she often didn’t recall the gender or nationality of the author and thus helped keep the judging process fair to a certain degree.
Ali Smith was runner-up with her novel How To Be Both, which several readers who commented on the article felt should have won. However, Flanagan snapped up the prize of £50,000, which is one of the world’s largest literary awards, and Churchwell was at least happy with the eventual winner, although she claims that both novels were very deserving, and stood out as ‘…the most rich, the most layered’ and continued ‘to dazzle and reveal ever more’.
Now, if only my local Waterstones had either book in stock, I could happily give my own opinion on who should have won!