Judging the 2014 Man Booker Prize by Erica Wagner

Judging the 2014 Man Booker Prize by Erica Wagner

I admit, there were times when I got confused. One hundred and fifty-four books? One hundred and fifty-six? Well, no matter: the round number is a lot. One of the things which distinguishes the Man Booker Prize from many other literary prizes is that the books submitted are not divvied up amongst the judges: everyone reads everything. And that means reading your way through towering, teetering, tremendous piles of books.

Not that it’s work you can complain about. How better to get a real overview of a publishing year than by judging what is—arguably—the world’s premier fiction prize? And at a watershed, no less: for this year was the very first in which all fiction published in English was considered. That meant one thing to most commentators: the Americans were going to trample us all to death. “Us”? Yes, I am an American by birth, but long resident in Britain and a denizen of the British literary world, if we can call it that. It was hard not to be amused at those who argued (I won’t name names) that the Man Booker would be ruined, ruined! by the admission of those ghastly Yanks. Guess what? That didn’t happen. Not at all.

What did happen was that we six judges—Professor A. C. Grayling, our chair, with a couple more professors (Sarah Churchwell, Jonathan Bate) for good measure, plus neuroscientist Dr Daniel Glaser and Dr Alastair Niven, a former director of English PEN (come to think of it, I was the only non-Doctor on the panel; I like to consider that a distinction!)—had an engaged and engaging debate about an astonishingly wide spread of novels. Some books that columnists thought would be shoe-ins didn’t make our longlist (Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch springs to mind); some took pundits by surprise, such as Paul Kingsnorth’s crowd-funded novel, The Wake—a remarkable achievement, which, while it didn’t make it to the shortlist, is now being widely recognized.

But how to define the winner of the Man Booker Prize? One answer would be that it’s a book that stays with you; that won’t leave you alone; that repays not only reading but rereading and then rereading again. Such book are rare, but Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is absolutely among them. At the awards dinner Flanagan revealed that he had discarded (read: destroyed the manuscript and wiped the hard drive) five versions of this story before completing this novel; it is dedicated to his late father, who was himself a prisoner of war working on the Burma/Thailand “death railway”, as is Dorrigo Evans, the flawed yet inspiring hero of this book.

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Richard Flanagan reading at Shakespeare and Company in 2010 (interviewed by Steven Gale)

It was, it must be said, a close call. Also on our shortlist was Ali Smith’s wonderful, adventurous How to be both—choosing between these two was an agonizing process, but there can only be one winner, in the end. Now it’s all over, well… what to read? I’m struck that not a few of my pals think I must be weary of novels now—but I’m not. Judging the Man Booker is a privilege: and an inspiration to keep on reading.