“I do not come out of a literary tradition,” said the Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan in his acceptance speech after winning this year’s Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. “I come from a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world.”
And with those words, he seemed to banish—for now, at any rate—the latest in the Booker’s long history of “controversies,” a history that dates back to 1972, the fourth year of the prize, when John Berger, having won with his experimental work G, used his acceptance speech to lambast the Booker company’s exploitation of Caribbean laborers in its sugar business, before announcing that he’d be sharing his prize money with the British Black Panthers.
Unlike Berger’s attack, though, this latest “controversy” didn’t come out of the blue. The year 2014 was famously the first time that American authors have been eligible for the Booker, alongside those from Britain, the British Commonwealth, and Ireland. It was a change of rules that had been discussed for years, but when the decision was finally announced, the reaction was not—I think it’s fair to say—wholly positive. The 2011 winner Julian Barnes called it simply “a bad idea,” while Philip Hensher, former judge and shortlistee, wrote a piece in The Guardian headlined, “Well, that’s the end of the Booker prize, then.” Just days before this year’s ceremony Peter Carey—who lives in New York, now holds dual US-Australian citizenship, and is one of the prize’s few double winners—lamented the “particular cultural flavour” that will be lost: “There was and there is a real Commonwealth culture. It’s different. America doesn’t really feel to be a part of that.”
Of course, lying behind some of the objections could well have been a fear of American domination, maybe even a mild case of cultural cringe. Once exposed to US authorial might, could Brits and writers from their former colonies even be sure of making the final shortlist of six? Would the prize ever again go to a writer from the remoter parts of the English-speaking world, as it did in the good old days of 2013 when the twenty-eight-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton won with The Luminaries? Well, now we have our answers—and in both cases they’re an unequivocal, if slightly anti-climactic, “yes.”1 No wonder that the mood among the Man Booker administrators following the announcement of Flanagan’s victory appeared to be one largely of relief. Even his subject matter, the experience of those captured Australian soldiers forced to build the Burma railway by the Japanese during World War II, is unimpeachably Commonwealth-related.
But as the dust settles on this year’s prize—which, however reassuring its outcome to the traditionalists, has felt historically significant—it’s not too late to remember and reconsider The Luminaries, a book that…
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