Confident that Man Booker Prize is selecting the best fiction from what is submitted: Literary Director Gaby Wood (Part 1 of 2) (IANS Interview)

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New Delhi : Of the 13 novels longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, six writers hailed from the UK, three from the US and two each from Ireland and Canada. In the shortlist, there were two novels from the US, three from UK and one from Canada. Does this imply that the prize has little regard for diversity? The Booker Prize Foundations Literary Director Gaby Wood contested the charge, pointing to the values that remain at the heart of the much-coveted annual prize.


Wood, who was herself a judge for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, the year Julian Barnes won with "The Sense of An Ending", said that the Booker Prize "cares very much about diversity", and this is achieved through its judges who have "a variety of reading experiences and literary tastes".

"First of all, it's important for the judges to not all be -- and not even predominantly be -- white and male. Secondly, they must, between them, have a variety of reading experiences, and a variety of literary tastes. Diversity is not just to do with how things look to the outside world -- its real significance in this case is in how receptive judges are to diversity of geography and genre, as well as to diversity of race and gender, in the books under consideration," Wood told IANS in an email interview from London.

She was appointed as the Literary Director of the Booker Foundation "after a careful selection process" in April 2015, following the death of her predecessor, British editor, publisher and author Ion Trewin.

She said that if the balance of judges is right -- with a good chair and mutual respect all around -- then every good book stands a chance of finding its ideal reader on the panel. "Once that's established, you have to let them get on with the job of identifying what they consider to be the best fiction of the year," she explained.

Wood shared that senior figures in the UK publishing industry are quick to note how relatively un-diverse that industry has been.

"A couple of years ago, the Man Booker Prize longlist was said in some quarters to have a relative lack of diversity, yet a (quick, unofficial and confidential) glance at the submissions list revealed that the longlist was, proportionally, far more diverse than the collection of books under consideration. Because these details are confidential no outsider is in a position to know, but we are confident that our judges are selecting the best fiction from what they're sent," she maintained.

She went on to say that the last couple of prize cycles have been judged by majority-female panels, there has been a wide range of ages, they have been chaired, consecutively, by intellectuals of African descent. These facts, she reminded, have not been emphasised.

"Because the age, gender or ethnicity of those people are not their qualifications for judging the prize," she asserted.

As for this year's longlist and shortlist, Wood maintained that it's impossible to draw conclusions of that kind -- that the prize has little regard for diversity -- from one year alone. She added that it's actually quite difficult to discern any sort of trend over a few years because the judges change annually.

"Also, I'm a little wary of criticisms that might lead to dangerously tokenistic defences: Are we to point out, for instance, that the two Canadians on the longlist are of Sri Lankan and Ghanaian descent, respectively? No: They are Canadian, and to rhetorically strip them of their citizenship in an attempt to point out the Prize's high regard for diversity would be antithetical to the Prize's purpose," she said.

Wood was previously the Head of Books at the Daily Telegraph. In her stint with the newspaper, she reinvigorated the paper's literary coverage, was instrumental in its sponsorship of the Hay Festival, and profiled leading cultural and public figures from Toni Morrison to Boris Johnson.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is one of the most coveted literary prizes, awarding a whopping 50,000 pounds annually. Apart from the international recognition that the Prize brings to the winning novelist, it also tremendously boosts the sales of the winning novel. In the week following the 2016 winner's announcement, for example, sales of "The Sellout" by Paul Beatty increased by 658 per cent.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)

Published : Thursday, November 01, 2018 13:00 [IST]
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