‘No one has ever read anything like this before’

Par excellence: Anna Burns is the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize since 2013.

Are book prizes bad for writing? Milkman, a challenging work about sexual harassment in Northern Ireland, has won the Man Booker Prize. Some writers say the award is stifling creativity.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”

This dark, peculiar line launches us into Anna Burns’s novel, Milkman, which has just won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

There are no character names — even the narrator refers to herself as “middle sister” — and paragraph breaks are used sparingly throughout the book, which wrestles with sexual harassment and the violent legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

“You’ve never heard a voice like it before… it is completely distinctive,” said philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who chaired the judging panel.

Burns overcame competition from works including Everything Under by 27-year-old Daisy Johnson, the youngest writer ever nominated for the prize, and The Overstory, Richard Powers’s environmental epic.

The Booker Prize was first awarded in 1969. Over the decades, it established itself as the most prestigious award in literature.

But it has not been without controversy. In 2014, the prize was opened to American writers, prompting fears the longlists would be less diverse and dominated by large American publishers.

And increasingly, the prize dictates which books will be the year’s bestsellers in literary fiction.

This is “good for the novel but bad for novelists,” believes author and critic David Lodge. He is nostalgic for a time when a writer’s reputation was “produced by the reviews they received and what people said to one another.”

His fellow writer Amit Chaudhuri agrees: “The Booker now has a stranglehold on how people think of, read and value books in Britain.”

Among their chief criticisms is that chance plays too big a role in the selection process for so powerful a prize.

In fact, in 1979, Saville by David Storey won as the result of a coin toss when the judges were split.

But the influence of book prizes continues to grow, with the Costa Book Awards and the US National Book Award also exerting considerable power over readers’ decisions.

Are book prizes bad for writing?

Spineless

Absolutely, say some. Their zero-sum approach to judging literature funnels market success towards a few, rather arbitrarily selected, novelists. This creates a climate in which writers are aiming to appeal to the literary establishment and popular consensus, stifling diversity and innovation. Great literature should be fought over.

Don’t be so sure, respond others. Look at this year’s shortlist and you will see a vast range of styles, themes and ideas. The books chosen are truly diverse. In the age of Netflix, the Booker Prize keeps people reading, and engaging with challenging, intelligent literature at that. We’d be lost without it.

You Decide

  1. Should we scrap book prizes?
  2. If a book wins an award, are you more likely to read it?

Activities

  1. Should American writers be eligible for the Man Booker Prize? Research both sides of the debate and write one page explaining your answer.
  2. Imagine you are a judge for the ultimate book award. Choose the best book you’ve ever read and write a passionate review detailing why it deserves the prize.

Some People Say...

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Theodore Roosevelt

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize on Tuesday evening for her novel Milkman, which is set during the Troubles and deals with themes of sexual harassment. None of the characters have names, and there are few paragraph breaks. Burns is the first Northern Irish writer ever to win the award. Her novel was selected from a six-book shortlist that included Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, who at the age of 27 is the youngest ever nominee.
What do we not know?
Whether the Booker Prize will ever return to excluding American authors, as it was previously open only to Commonwealth and Irish writers. In February, 30 figures from the publishing industry wrote a letter demanding American writers be dropped because the change led to “the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others”.

Word Watch

The Troubles
Forty years of conflict between Northern Irish nationalists, who wanted a united Ireland, and Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of the UK. The Troubles ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, which introduced an invisible border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Over 3,500 people died.
Environmental epic
In this 500-page novel, a group of strangers unite to save a forest from destruction.
Prestigious
Deserving of respect; having high status.
American
Until 2014, the Man Booker Prize was only open to writers from Commonwealth nations — the UK and most countries that were once under its rule — and the Republic of Ireland.
Literary fiction.
A term used in the publishing industry to describe books that have serious literary value, or to distinguish them from “genre” books, for example, some science fiction, crime or romance novels.
Arbitrarily
Randomly.

Subjects

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