George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, after the debut novel fought off fierce competition. This year’s shortlist comprised revered literary figures: Ali Smith, Paul Auster and Mohsin Hamid and other novelist debutants: Emily Fridlund and York’s own Fiona Mozley. Saunders is generally considered one of the United States’ finest short story writers.
Saunders has bore the brunt of criticism levied at the Man Booker Prize itself. Like Paul Beatty before him, he has faced column inches of lament for his being American, and his novel is perhaps not quite as award-winningly original as it is acclaimed to be. It is not Saunders’ stature, nationality, or his work that is the problem, however.
With a maelstrom of criticism surrounding this year’s award, it appears as if a question mark looms large over the head of the Man Booker Prize as an institution – has it run its course? Possibly. But if the Man Booker is devoid of value because of what Saunders’ win signifies, these problems are not new. Lincoln in the Bardo winning is symptomatic of a regressive trend in the history of the Booker where the award serves to reaffirm the obvious choice, rather than codify a new entrant to the canon. Perusing the scroll of previous winners and viewing them within the contexts of their success, it is glaringly obvious the Man Booker has often handed out cash and cachet to the ‘obvious choice’ unnecessarily throughout its lifespan.
Three years prior to being granted the epithet of Nobel Laureate, William Golding received the 1980 trophy for Rites of Passage, a quarter century after his literary phenomenon Lord of the Flies. Similarly, JM Coetzee’s second win in 1999 for Disgrace came only four years before receiving his lifetime achievement award from the Nobel academy. Hilary Mantel won her second Booker in 2012, this came mere months after the BBC backed two adaptations of her work: nonetheless for her previous Booker winner Wolf Hall, and its champion-in-waiting sequel Bring Up the Bodies.
Salman Rushdie has won multiple plaudits from Booker. Midnight’s Children took home the gold in 1981 and was attributed two retrospective wins in the 1993 Booker of Bookers and 2008’s Best of Booker. A considerable portion of the list’s remainder reads like a veritable who’s who of eminent authors usually with a successful oeuvre preceding their wins: Kingsley Amis, Peter Carey (twice), Graham Swift, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Julian Barnes, Howard Jacobson.
The Booker has rarely done new or unheard-of writers many favours, save for perhaps figures like Arundhati Roy and Eleanor Catton. Casting its net further afield has caught only successful American writers like Saunders, failing to quell the “cultural malaise” Richard Gott alleged it represented in 1994. The Man Booker Prize sits atop a precipice of pointlessness. If Saunders’ win is the moment when the good ship sinks beneath the waters of irrelevance, it has been piercing its hull against an iceberg of obviousness for decades.
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