Despite being restricted to members of the British Commonwealth, the Man Booker Prize is a hell of a lot more prestigious than the Commonwealth Games is for sport. There are those who accuse it of being a B-league by omitting the United States and any number of non-Anglosphere countries, but it carries a remarkable amount of prestige, mainly because of the continued dominance of the United Kingdom in the literary world.
The other major difference with the Commonwealth Games is that in sport Australia runs rings around the competition but in books it’s not nearly as influential. Nevertheless, Australia has won the second most Bookers out of any country — with either four or six prizes, depending on whether you count J.M. Coetzee’s two. I don’t, because he moved here subsequent to his prizes, whereas Peter Carey, Tom Keneally and D.B.C. Pierre are Australian-born. Pierre is another strange case, having been raised in Mexico and the USA with only a short stint as an adult in Australia. I guess that’s what comes from being a nation of immigrants.
This year is a good one for Aussies, with locals Michelle de Kretser (for The Lost Dog) and Steve Toltz (for A Fraction of the Whole) both on the long list of 13. The odds aren’t good, however, with the bookies favouring Salman Rushdie, whose Midnight’s Children was recently acclaimed the best Booker winner ever.
Of course, the long-odds books do occasionally win over the judges and the big names can be overlooked. There were not a few critics that saw Midnight’s Children as a very safe choice for the Best of the Booker and the panel could be conscious of the need to give attention to some lesser-known writers.
The big surprise for the Australian industry is the omission of Helen Garner’s astonishing return to novel-writing, The Spare Room. Garner is one of the few “big name” Australian writers still residing here rather than in the UK or USA. In that sense, she’s clearly “one of ours” in a way that Carey or Pierre or Coetzee aren’t.
Of course, the Booker judges aren’t so interested in national pride and literature is (fortunately) less jingoistic than sport. I still can’t help cheering on one of my own.