The Man Booker Prize: Sydney Writers' Festival

Boris Kelly

Established in 1969, the 'Man Booker Prize' is one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, sought after by writers and publishers alike throughout the Commonwealth of nations to which entry is confined.
The Man Booker Prize: Sydney Writers' Festival
The Man Booker Prize: Sydney Writers' Festival Established in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, sought after by writers and publishers alike throughout the Commonwealth of nations to which entry is confined. When a novel wins the Booker its publisher orders a print run of 30,000 copies overnight and its author is immediately thrust into the global media spotlight for at least fifteen minutes. For these commercial reasons alone the prize has become highly competitive, but what does it do for the quality of literary fiction and does it shape public taste or reflect it? This session, moderated by the literary editor of The Australian, Geordie Williamson, explored this and other questions with two Booker listed writers and a former judge. When Irish author John Banville won the prize for his novel The Sea he caused a storm of controversy by declaring from the winner's podium that a work of art had won 'at last'. The book went on to sell well in excess of previous Banville novels, generally regarded as works appreciated by a coterie readership. Perhaps it was as a result of this whiff of financial success that Banville has since gone on to write popular crime fiction under the name of Benjamin Black. Works by Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey (one of two writers who have won the Booker twice), Arundhati Roy and others have enjoyed similar success while other prize winners have disappeared into relative obscurity. Three judges adjudicate the annual prize and during her tenure British writer and editor Kate Summerscale discovered that a number of factors were at work during the process. Personal taste, literary merit, author profile and the inevitable compromise required of unanimity all figured in the determination of the winning entry. Writers Mohammed Hanif and Monica Ali have in the past been listed for the Booker but neither walked away with the prize. For Ali, the experience was both flattering and disorienting. Writers are by habit solitary creatures prone to keeping their work under wraps during development and averse to the circus of self-promotion. A Booker nominee, especially an emerging writer, is compelled by obligations to their publisher to become a media performer and this can be an agonising experience for some. Ali found the attention stressful, all the time knowing that the nomination was in no way a guarantee of literary longevity. Her colleague Hanif adopted a circumspect attitude to the glamour and celebrity status that comes with being nominated. In the end, good writers do not write to win prizes but every good writer would probably like to win one because most seek affirmation through a connection to their readers. Although prizes like the Booker may not be the arbiters of public taste they do offer readers of literary fiction signposts to quality and originality. They also offer writers the chance to extend their readership and bitch about their peers which is all part of the cut and thrust of a publishing world increasingly attuned to the appetite of the market. Event: Sydney Writers' Festival Date: Thursday May 21, 2009 Session: The Man Booker Prize Time: 6-7pm Venue: Heritage Pier, Hickson Road

About the author

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer.