The Bay of Fires, Tasmania. Richard Flanagan was born on the island.
The Bay of Fires, Tasmania. Richard Flanagan was born on the island.

TassleEye (Flickr)

This year's Man Booker Prize and the challenges of judging a book prize

Matt Pickles

This year's Man Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, a former history undergraduate at Oxford.

But as far as one of his near-contemporaries at Oxford recalls, Mr Flanagan was not writing a novel while he studied here.

'I actually lived across the road from Richard while we were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford but it was only later when we both started to publish novels that we realised we had this mutual interest,' says Professor Elleke Boehmer, novelist and Professor of World Literature in English at Oxford University.

'I always knew Richard as a very serious and committed environmental campaigner who loved his homeland of Tasmania and the deep south of Australia, and this was very clear in his acceptance speech. I remember him campaigning against the building of a dam in his native Tasmania and the various forestry projects on the island.'

Mr Flanagan's book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is set during the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War Two. Professor Boehmer believes the novel is a fitting winner of the Man Booker Prize at a time when we are commemorating World War One.

'Richard’s book explores the question of how we remember war and other situations of conflict, and how we get over (or not) the trauma caused by those events,' she says. ‘It is a brilliant book and deserves to win in what I understand was a close run contest.'

Professor Boehmer attended the ceremony at the Guildhall on Tuesday evening, and will herself be a judge on the panel of next year's International Man Booker prize, which looks at literature written in English and other languages.

Professor Boehmer says that the main challenge of judging the award is the amount of reading required. 'Last night's committee would have had to read 150 novels and we’re probably having to read as much or perhaps even more than that,' she said.

'It is also difficult to make judgements between books that are really fantastic. Often it can help if the topic of a book relates to one that is the focus of public attention in a particular year.'

Despite these challenges, Professor Boehmer says that judging a book prize can also help you as a writer. She said: 'It takes you to a far broader terrain than you might normally read in because you are reading other literary traditions.

'This can help you work your way towards a solution to a common structural problem by seeing how other writers have dealt with that in their own tradition. For example, you can see how others manage multi-voice narratives, or the narrative of a single individual who may be out of touch with their own community—which is quite a common theme.'

A lot of attention focused on this year as the first in which all novels written in English were eligible for the Man Booker Prize, and two American authors were on the shortlist. 'It is interesting that in the first year Americans could be nominated the only Commonwealth writer on the longlist won,' says Professor Boehmer.

'I think it is right any novel in the English language can now be considered, and this year’s award demonstrates that the prize is not necessarily going to be dominated by big American realist novels.'

'It's also a great thing for Australian literature and I hope it will add to the momentum for the Commonwealth Fiction Prize to be revived. It was stopped a few years ago, having been won by Richard in the past, and I’d love to see it restarted.'

Professor Boehmer has two books coming out next year – a novel about the emotional legacy of the Second World War, and a book with Oxford University Press whose working title is ‘Networks of Empire’.