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Crackling Embers III: Post Booker Blues

By Lee Rourke.

For me the most irksome thing about this year’s Man Booker Prize wasn’t the eventual ‘post-British’ winner, or the hubristic Judges’ comments (who sourly dismissed the judicious opinions of the myriad worthwhile critics in the Blogosphere who derided them), but the sheer temerity of Louise Doughty’s vainglorious use of it as a platform for her own self-promotion. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the sole reason of a literary prize to heap praise on exciting authors and writing and not to highlight the conflicting opinions of those selecting each title? Shouldn’t any panel of judges remain firmly outside of the media glare, especially in the run-up to the award itself?

Now that last week’s predictable hullabaloo is finally all over and the Man Booker has ostensibly shown us for the literary dodo it is, I thought I’d look into alternative prizes that focus solely on the art of writing.

There’s a plethora of literary awards out there, too many to mention here. So, I’ll concentrate on just two home-grown, yet differing awards that I feel, without a need for pomp and ceremony, will hopefully unearth writing that is a little different. I’m not saying that these awards should take the place of the Man Booker, that would be stupid and it’s not for someone like me to decide, it’s just that, if like me, you choose to look for serious alternatives, then these two prizes are good places to begin.

The first of the two prizes that caught my eye couldn’t be as far removed from the ideals of the Man Booker if it tried. And I have no idea whatsoever about what it has in store for us. The inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing offers the winner “£50,000 and the opportunity to take up a short placement at the University of Warwick.” Like the Man Booker’s fiscal carrot, this is a sizable amount of money. Unlike the Man Booker “the Prize will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form, on a theme which will change with every award.” The theme is ‘complexity’ and its winner will be announced in February 2009. “The best writing”, states award director David Morley “creates possibility [. . .] If we accept that writing makes you think, and that the formation of knowledge depends partly on the complex and often playful process of writing, then what role does the process of writing play on that very edge of ‘not knowing’ and knowing: a place of creativity, energy and adventure.” This is certainly a fresh antidote to the rather unadventurous results the Man Booker delivered us.

If we want something a little different, maybe even daring, then we should look at what’s on offer at this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The most interesting writing I’ve read by far this year has been, unfortunately for us, in translation. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize ‘acknowledges both the novelist and translator equally, recognising the importance of the translator in their ability to bridge the gap between languages’, states the award’s website rather proudly, adding that ‘translators have the profound ability to restructure.’ Which, indeed they do, and at the same time offer to us an alternative to the ubiquitous ‘post British’ novel and maybe, knowing foreign fiction’s often esoteric nature, a true alternative to the rather stuffy, conventional tomes we are told year in year out are the pinnacle of fiction writing in this country.

Only time will tell. If, like me, you want something different, then it’s heartening to know that there a prizes out there that are worth the time and effort it must take to keep them afloat. For one year at least, the Man Booker is over.


Lee Rourke is the author of Everyday.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 20th, 2008.