On the Man Booker Prize

I hadn’t paid much attention neither to the 2014 Booker Prize longlist nor shortlist. I could have named some of the authors who were nominated, but I haven’t picked up any of the books.

This could soon change with yesterday’s announcement of the Booker 2014 winner.


Reading the article linked above, I couldn’t help but have my interest piqued by The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I don’t recommend reading the Guardian’s more detailed review of the novel as it gives a lot away but essentially, The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the stories of prisoners of war forced to build the Burma railway by the Japanese during World War II. It’s a history previously unbeknownst to me. And as a Southeast Asian, I feel a magnetic pull to this novel. I will try to get my hands on a copy as soon as I can.

The novel’s author Richard Flanagan himself has personal investment in writing this story. His father was one of the prisoners of war who survived the campaign to build this railway. He died the day Flanagan completed The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I couldn’t help but think of how bittersweet this was, not to mention the juxtaposition of mortality and the fragility of life against immortality through literature.

In 2014, the Man Booker Prize broadened its scope to include any book written in the English language. This year, the shortlist nominees included three Brits, two Americans, and one Australian – the Aussie was Flanagan, incidentally.

I was happy that the rule change would make it a freer competition. The Booker Prize has had a wonderful reputation of bringing great post-colonial writing to the forefront of the literary world but up to now, its scope was limited only to the Commonwealth. I’m hopeful that starting this year, Booker lists will nominate even more rich writing from newer terrains.

Of course, that may be a too-optimistic viewpoint. Here, Susanna Rustin detailed her fears that the Booker prize would be dominated by Americans, that a “broadening of scope meant a narrowing of horizons.”

It’s true that American publishing companies have an enormous amount of money and influence to put their novels through the door. These are resources that other countries’ publishing houses don’t have.

In the end, I’m still hopeful. Preliminary analyses don’t mean much, only the results. I actually look forward to seeing future Booker longlists now and to see which countries will supply the next nominated novels.


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