George Saunders, author of 'Lincoln in the Bardo'
George Saunders, author of 'Lincoln in the Bardo'
Image: Getty

Yet another Man Booker literary prize has been announced, and if you are confused, you are not alone. Doesn’t the Booker only get announced in October? Hasn’t the Man Booker International Prize just been awarded? What’s this new one? The Golden Man Booker? Didn’t Salman Rushdie win The Best of Booker with Midnight’s Children 10 years ago?

Once the behemoth of British literary prizes, the Man Booker seems to be losing its way, scrabbling for stunts that will keep it in the public eye but its impact is fast becoming diluted.

There was a day when just to be longlisted for the prize meant a spike in sales and interest. People would buy the entire shortlist, and when the winner was announced, sales went off the charts. In 2009, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall had sold just 13,000 copies when it was longlisted. By the time she won the prize, she had sold 225,000 in hardback alone - not counting paperback and ebook editions.

The slide started in 2013 when the Booker committee announced it was throwing open the prize to anyone writing a novel in English. (It had previously been limited to novels by authors in the Commonwealth, including Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe.) Enter the Americans, exit exciting new and diverse voices from the Commonwealth. The shortlists in subsequent years have been stuffed with American authors; two have won it: Paul Beatty in 2016 with The Sellout and last year George Saunders with Lincoln in the Bardo.

Sales of books on both sides of the Atlantic have dropped and so has public interest. About 30 British publishers have signed a letter urging the award’s organisers to rescind their decision, pointing out the new rules have led to less diversity. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the prize and the organisers have planned a festival in London in July that will showcase previous winners. They’ve also announced the shortlist for the once-off “Golden Man Booker”. Five judges were asked to read every winner from a decade and to decide on the best book. Their choices are:

  • VS Naipaul - In a Free State
  • Penelope Lively - Moon Tiger
  • Michael Ondaatje - The English Patient
  • Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall
  • George Saunders - Lincoln in the Bardo

The public has been asked to vote at themanbookerprize.com/vote.

It’ll be interesting to see how many readers respond. To many, there’s a whiff of desperation as the prize loses its relevance and power.

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