Prizes Aplenty: 2013’s Nobel and Booker Prizes discussed

I’m rather frustrated that possibly the two biggest news stories in the literary world happened at practically the same time, at a time I’m unable to get online to comment on the results. Nonetheless, I’m going to weigh-in (rather belatedly I admit) with my thoughts on the winners.

Alice Munro

I’ll start with the bigger prize. Last year, when Mo Yan was named the Nobel Laureate for Literature, I posted a rather impassioned essay discussing my thoughts on the controversies surrounding his award and the prize in general. In the twelve months since then, I’ve periodically returned to thinking about the topic (in particular my dismissal of Ai Weiwei’s criticism of Mo Yan, though that’s not particularly relevant here), and I think now that perhaps I was being a bit too generous in overlooking the flaws with the prize. I still believe wholeheartedly that the prize is a good (if extravagant) institution, but it’s probably not as much of a force for egalitarian good as I portrayed it.

That said, this year’s nominee is something of a mixed bag. I’ve never read any of Alice Munro’s work, but I have at least heard of her before her nomination (which I don’t think I can say of anyone else, except perhaps Harold Pinter). Munro is a white, anglophone author from Canada (though the focus of her fiction, according to Wikipedia, takes place in one of the few parts of Canada below the 49th Parallel, placing her fairly close, geographically speaking, to the US), however, she is also (obviously) a woman. Thus, she’s the 13th female laureate in the prize’s 112 year history, as the committee have been very quick to emphasise. Given that her award came less than a month after the well publicised controversy surrounding University of Toronto professor David Gilmour and his refusal to teach literature by women or Canadians (among many other groups) because they are uninteresting and inferior to “Serious heterosexual guy” authors, I will reiterate the point I made last year: If the Nobel Prize continues to give recognition to authors outside of the mainstream, then it’s a worthwhile institution. (Coincidentally, Gilmour’s office is less than 200km from Munro’s home-town. Can anyone else say awkward?)

The Luminaries

Then there’s the Booker Prize. What are the chances? (1 in 6, I know!, or 11/4 according to Ladbrokes). I read 10 of the 13 books from the long list, 5 of which were on the 6 book shortlist, and the winner was the one I hadn’t managed to read. Thus, I find myself at somewhat of a loss as to what to actually say about the book. I still think that The Lowland should have won (I won’t say “deserved to win”, because that implies the other books were somehow less worthy), but I’ll reserve final judgement on that until I’ve read The Luminaries. I do think it’s worth looking at the book in a general light though. Eleanor Catton is only the second New Zealander to win the prize (breaking a streak of four British winners in a row), is the youngest winner at 28 years old, and The Luminaries is the longest book to win the prize. Also, defying the prediction I made, it’s a historical novel, continuing the trend begun by Hillary Mantel over the last few years.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Booker plays out next year, as (ironically) the day after I posted my run-down of the prize, where I explained that the criteria for inclusion included the author being a citizen of the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe, the rules changed. As of next year, any novel published in the English language is eligible for inclusion. To accommodate this change, publishers will now only be able to nominate one book each, as opposed to the two that were permitted before, thus limiting the selection at the same time as widening it. So it’ll be interesting to see how this will affect the prize (and whether or not the Pulitzer committee will return the favour by loosening the eligibility criteria in turn…)

Hopefully I’ll be able to post again with less of break, depending on when I get somewhere with WiFi. I’m still 2 weeks away from getting broadband in my new flat, but given that I have a backlog of books I want to review (including two of the remaining Booker Reviews), I’m going to try my utmost to get them posted as soon as I can!


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