~posted by Michael W.
Yesterday, the Man Booker prize was awarded to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Now it’s time to reserve your copy. You might be saying, “Wait! I don’t know anything about this book, this author or this strange-sounding prize it supposedly won!” You might be saying, “Bah! There are so many awards these days, every book wins at least something.” Well, perhaps we can bring you around. Let’s start at the beginning.
What exactly is the Man Booker Prize? The first prize – then simply called the “Booker Prize” – was awarded to P.H. Newby for Something to Answer For in 1967. At the time, the criterion for picking a winner was straightforward: “the best novel in the opinion of the judges.” But that wasn’t the whole story: the author also had to be a citizen of the United Kingdom (or the Commonwealth) and the book itself had to be published in Great Britain. In that year, P.H. Newby beat the competition and took home £5,000 for his trouble, a cash award that has increased tenfold, to £50,000, in the decades since.
Other changes to the prize have occurred over the years. The Booker Prize became The Man Booker Prize in 2002 (which made Yann Martel the first winner of The Man Booker Prize for The Life of Pi) when the Man Group began sponsorship of the award. On the Prize’s website, the Man Group is described as “one of the world’s largest independent alternative investment managers, and a leader in high-alpha, liquid investment strategies.” A literary prize is certainly an interesting investment.
Most recently, in 2013, the criterion of an author born in the Commonwealth expanded to include anyone, anywhere writing in English. Nevertheless, Commonwealth authors continue to rule the day. Australian author Richard Flanagan won in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This year’s winner, Marlon James, is from Jamaica, which is also part of the Commonwealth realm. A Brief History of Seven Killings, framed around the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley (an actual event), tells several stories from different perspectives, crossing culture, time and history. The American nominees were Hanya Yanagihara and Anne Tyler. Yanagihara’s A Little Life is a decade-spanning tale of four friends that explores the challenges of friendship and the burdens of a traumatic past. Like A Little Life, Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is a story that spans decades – in this case, we follow a Baltimore family, the Whitshanks, in a story that is told with heart and humor.
What lies ahead for The Man Booker Prize? We’ll have to wait and see. Not everyone was pleased with the change to open up the prize to anyone writing in English, regardless of nationality. If Mark Watney, the hero of Andy Weir’s The Martian, had composed a novel while waiting to be rescued, would his book be eligible for the Man Booker Prize? Just some food for thought…
(Hot on the trail for more about prizes? You might be interested in checking out The Pulitzer Prize: the Inside Story of the World’s Most Prestigious Award by J. Douglas Bates and Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize by Kathy-jo Wargin.)