The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of literary prizes, awarded to an original work written in English and published in the UK. It results in huge acclaim for authors as well as their publishers, with longlisters, shortlisters and the eventual winning novel driving sales and propping the book trade.
While it’s not gone without its share of controversy, perhaps the most notable change to the Man Booker in recent times was its decision to open the competition to any English-writing author of any country (although the restriction of UK publication still remains). Thus the doors were nudged ajar, and this year’s shortlist included Americans Karen Joy Fowler: We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and Joshua Ferris: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Two-time winner of the Man Booker, Australian Peter Carey, publicly decried the decision, claiming the competition’s ‘cultural flavour’ would be lost.
However he, and everyone else who worried about the encroachment of US writers (who already have access to their own Holy Grail awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award), needn’t have bothered. Did anyone really suppose that these first-chance ‘interlopers’ — despite producing truly wonderful work — would snatch the trophy? The Atlantic may have been bridged, but it’s a long drive between coastlines.
No. This year’s winner, announced last night, is Richard Flanagan (an Australian from down-under-DownUnder) for his astounding and deeply personal novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (published in Australia by Random House Books), which centres on prisoners and their captors in a Japanese POW camp along the Thai-Burma railway. The novel — Flanagan’s sixth — was described by judges as ‘a harrowing account of the cost of war to all who are caught up in it’. Flanagan’s father, a survivor of the Burma railway, died the day Flanagan finished writing the book.
It’s a remarkable win for Flanagan, though not undeserved. He’s the third Australian to have won the award in its 46-year history. Previous Australian laureates are Thomas Keneally and, of course, Peter Carey. Twice. And it does perhaps underscore what all writers know — that even with the backing of prizes like the Man Booker, there are few ‘overnight’ successes, and perseverance does pay. Eventually.
Naturally, it’s already been announced that a new edition of The Narrow Road to the Deep North will be out tomorrow. It’s a great coup, not just for Flanagan and his publishers, but also for bookshops, who are racing to stock their shelves. And it’s a great win for Australian literature — we really do write some great stuff, don’t we?
But for Richard Flanagan — a seemingly unassuming man with a ready smile (who looks an awful lot like fellow Aussie, Clive James) — it’s the great nod all writers look for. Well done, Richard, and congratulations.