In Praise of the Man Booker Prize

Given that my twitter feed is mainly composed of people within the publishing and book industries, the excitement surrounding tonight’s Man Booker Prize was terrific. It was announced, shortly after 21.45, that Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is the winner of the 2012 Man Booker Prize, making Mantel the first woman, and the first Brit, to win the prize twice. As she joked in her acceptance speech, “You wait 20 years for a Booker to come along, and then two come at once!”

The Man Booker Prize does a fantastic job every year of boosting the readership and sales of some truly fantastic books which, without the kind of publicity that the Booker brings, could easily slip under the radar. This year’s shortlist was as follows:

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Umbrella – Will Self
The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng
Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil
Swimming Home – Deborah Levy
The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

Once the judges have agreed upon a shortlist, I imagine it is near impossible for the decisions to still be about quality. All six books on the shortlist have to be of an extremely high quality and, thanks to the widely differing genres, they become impossibly hard to compare. It seems to me, therefore, that it might become more about what kind of book the judges believe we should be reading. It’s interesting then, that Bring Up the Bodies took the prize. It seems to be a triumph of great storytelling over more experimental and more poetic novels. This is a triumph that I, for one, happily welcome. There certainly never needs to be a war between great storytelling and experimental or poetic writing, and many of the greatest works combine all three. However, it seems important that a book that will now get such high levels of publicity thanks to winning this prize should be one that isn’t widely acknowledged as ‘quite difficult to read’ (as Will Self’s Umbrella is, for example) but rather one that allows us to become engrossed in brilliant storytelling. After all, every great work of art, be it a novel, a painting or a musical composition, should tell a story of some kind.

I know that the Booker isn’t about finding bestsellers, but it’s inevitable that the book which takes the prize will always sell well. I have to celebrate, therefore, that a high quality and yet ‘readable’ novel has won. Once readers have been gripped by Mantel’s storytelling, they will have been eased into the Booker shortlist. Suddenly, some of the other shortlisted books, which are typically seen as more difficult to read, may not seem as intimidating as they once did. Mantel’s second win, therefore, can be seen as a huge hurrah for the whole shortlist and for ambassadors of reading everywhere. HURRAH!

You can hear more about Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies here:

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