The Man Booker Prize goes to… the Book and not the Author!
On a recent trip to the bookstore where I worked last summer, I bought Margaret Atwood‘s charming and delicious Negotiating With the Dead- A Writer on Writing (Virago,2003). The book is based on a series of lectures delivered by the Canadian author on writing and the role of the writer at the University of Cambridge. I am entirely possessed by her writing and I consider myself fortunate that I discovered her (or she discovered me). So enchanted I am by her wit and style, that I have been searching for more of her books on Flipkart, pondering which one to buy and read next. Having read an impressive review of Lady Oracle (1973), her third novel, I began to make up my mind about buying it. I was comparing prices at Infibeam and Flipkart (how economical of me!), when I noticed ‘Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2000’ printed on the cover of a 2001 paperback. Really? Trusting my (reliable) knowledge about Booker Prize winners, it was The Blind Assassin, another work by Atwood and not Lady Oracle that had won the Booker in 2000. This chink in my Booker knowledge armour was meant to be done away with as soon as possible. I looked up on Wikipedia and the Man Booker website for reassurance and, as I had foreseen, my good sense won. It was The Blind Assassin and not Lady Oracle. There you go.
Interestingly, no such epithet was printed on the cover of a similar but newer edition on another website.
The series of events led me to conclude (pardon if I sound a little like Sherlock Holmes) that someone at the renowned publishing house, Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co. had misinterpreted that it was Margaret Atwood and not her novel that won the Man Booker Prize in the year 2000. And they had corrected the error in the next reprint, presumably after this howler had made many toes curl. But wait, that’s what you think too, no? It’s Aravind Adiga who won the Booker, you’d say. And Salman Rushdie, and Kiran Desai, and Arundhati Roy. No, it’s The White Tiger, Midnight’s Children, The Inheritance of Loss and The God of Small Things.
Here is a video of Chair Judge Andrew Motion announcing the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2010, which is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. Not, mind you, Howard Jacobson.
You don’t give even a fig, do you? The Writer or the Work, the Work or the Writer, how does it matter? After all, it’s the author who takes £50,000 home after winning the prize. Of course, you are right, but only partly. One could say ‘the Booker Prize-winning author of ‘the book he won the prize for’ ‘, but do not address an author as a ‘Booker Prize Winner’. Don’t let a jeu de mots get the better out of you.
Come what may, confusing the two is hardly passable. Atwood once read a rather funny and pithy line in a magazine- ‘Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.’ Heraclites said, you never step into the same river twice, read- you never write the same book twice. The Man Booker Prize, unlike the Nobel Prize for Literature, “promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year”. That is, an individual work isolated from the rest of the writer’s writing life. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie are arguably three of the greatest living masters of contemporary English literature and their works have won the Booker Prize in the past, yet their novels published in 2010 (The Pregnant Widow by Amis, Solar by McEwan and Luka and the Fire of Life by Rushdie) couldn’t make it to the Booker longlist. There’s a fine line between the work alone being rewarded and receiving recognition for a whole life dedicated to writing. It’s not merely about saying it right to keep a literary faux pas at bay but also understanding the confusion (I wasted some precious time to confirm whether I was right about Lady Oracle), misconceptions and mischief incomplete knowledge may lead to.
So, the next time someone comes up to you and says, “I am going to read a novel by a Booker Prize Winner” (and yes, there are sweethearts who say such things, ouch), Dear Reader, do raise a couple of contemptuous eyebrows to honour my memory.