The Man Booker Prize is about as coy and mysterious as the work it honors. The award was inaugurated in the UK in 1969 according to “just one criterion – the prize would be for ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’,” which you may recognize as the literal definition of “book award.” If you go to the Booker Prize Foundation for something more specific, you’ll learn that the aim of the prize is to “increase the reading of quality fiction” and “attract the intelligent general audience,” some very conventional, slightly pretentious ambitions. And then, somewhere along the line, the prize is casually promised to “transform the winner’s career.”
From a cynical eye, everything about this begs to be grilled: the near-satirical ambiguity, the slight air of superiority — all of it. The thing about the Man Booker, though, is that they pull it off, resoundingly. Although absent from their bare mission statement, the Man Booker does an excellent job of sniffing out innovative fictions: prose that’s perhaps a touch too edgy to sell in the mainstream and may just need a little £50,000 kiss for momentum. Consequently, the program has created and maintained an impressive cohort of now-household names in the world of literary fiction, absolute Gs like Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro, whose work has challenged and tempered what we can do with language.
The Man Booker’s reputation for the slightly odd renders it a particularly exciting and unusual prize. Graphic novels, black comedies and “historiographic metafictions” have graced both long and shortlists, genres typically underrepresented in the world of literary accolade. This year’s winner, “Milkman,” follows the story of unnamed characters in the unnamed town of an unnamed country overrun with violence between unnamed political groups. Its author, the Northern Irish Anna Burns, plans to use the prize money on an operation to alleviate the intense nerve pain that complicated the release of “Milkman.” In an interview with The New York Times, Burns shared that “If it’s successful, I’ll be able to write again.”
The Booker Prize Foundation is using their power to promote and protect the weird, and we at the Michigan Daily Book Review are here for it. We’ve covered the shortlist for you: texts ranging from longform poetry noir to a psychological retelling of Oedipus on a houseboat — odd birds that might be the household names of the next decade.