Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Le Carré Refuses to Come in From the Cold.

The Man Booker Prize is no stranger to the machinations of the murky world of public relations. In fact, this particular literary award is one of the most publicity-driven in the industry.

Each year, in the run up to the award ceremony, an unrelenting wave of press releases issue forth from Man Booker HQ, with the express aim of drumming up the maximum amount of media attention. And in this endeavour the Man Booker organisers have been spectacularly successful; the publicity generated for the shortlisted nominees makes the Man Booker one of the most sought-after awards in the industry (although, the £50,000 prize pot is hardly a disincentive either!). In short, PR has become the lifeblood of the Man Booker Prize.

Spare a thought, then, for the Man Booker International Prize. Often regarded as the poor relation to the more widely-known Man Booker Prize, the International award was set up in 2005 as a biennial event to complement the original. The International Prize focuses on a writer’s entire body of work, and judges the author on his or her overall contribution to literature. Unfortunately, the Man Booker International Prize has failed to capture the imagination of media commentators and has not managed to achieve the dizzying heights of press attention enjoyed by its older cousin … until now.

Today, in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney, with a relatively modest amount of fanfare, the short-listed nominees for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize were announced. The press reaction was largely muted and perfunctory – until one of the nominees, John le Carré, author of such celebrated novels as The Spy Who Came in From The Cold and The Constant Gardener, whipped up a maelstrom of controversy…

In a move which will doubtless have Man Booker International’s PR minions doing a happy dance around the office in unrestrained glee, le Carré dramatically requested that his name be withdrawn from contention. In a statement issued through his publishers, le Carré said, "I am enormously flattered to be named as a finalist of the 2011 Man Booker International prize. However, I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn."

If this was not enough to get the pundits salivating, the response of Rick Gekoski, the chairman of the judging panel, certainly was. Gekoski pointedly disregarded le Carré’s request by saying, "John le Carré's name will, of course, remain on the list. We are disappointed that he wants to withdraw from further consideration because we are great admirers of his work."

And so it appears that the Man Booker International Prize is faced with a stand-off between an unwilling nominee and a dogmatic judge … and it seems neither party is willing to concede ground.

Although it is highly unlikely that the judging panel will now award the prize to their recalcitrant nominee, le Carré’s refusal to participate has generated enormous publicity for the Man Booker International Prize, ensuring it will be one of the most closely watched literary awards in recent years – and this can only benefit all concerned.

Three cheers for John le Carré!

The complete list of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize shortlist is as follows:
 - Wang Anyi (China)
 - Juan Goytisolo (Spain)
 - James Kelman (UK)
 - John le Carre (UK)
 - Amin Maalouf (Lebanon)
 - David Malouf (Australia)
 - Dacia Maraini (Italy)
 - Rohinton Mistry (India/Canada)
 - Philip Pullman (UK)
 - Marilynne Robinson (USA)
 - Philip Roth (US)
 - Su Tong (China)
 - Anne Tyler (US)

Previous Winners of the Man Booker International Prize:
 - 2005 Ismail Kadare (Albania)
 - 2007 Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
 - 2009 Alice Munro (Canada)

The winner of the 2011 prize will be announced at the Sydney Writers Festival on May 18th.

Update: The Man Booker International Prize for 2011 was awarded to Philip Roth.  The decision was not unanimous - feminist author and publisher, Carmen Callil has resigned from the judging panel in protest.

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