The Man Booker Prize "cares very much about diversity" and the Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Gaby Wood, is confident that the Prize is selecting the best fiction from what is submitted to it every year. But the submissions, in the first place, are imperiled by the restriction of being published in the UK. Can a truly global literary award, as it is regarded, ignore all the novels not published in the UK and yet claim to recognise "the finest in fiction"?
In "an elimination of the premise of citizenship", Wood told IANS, the rules were recently amended, opening the doors to Irish publishers to submit their works so that anyone writing in English and published in the UK could be considered.
"The writers themselves could be Turkish, Chinese, etc; the books, in a literal sense, had to be British -- that is, published here. So it wasn't really an expansion, it was an elimination of the premise of citizenship. The parameters regarding publication have remained the same: All books submitted must have UK or Irish ISBNs, and 'UK and Ireland' is a common delineation in those terms, so it made sense for that particular amendment to be made," Wood said.
She was appointed the Literary Director of the Booker Foundation "after a careful selection process" in April 2015, following the death of her predecessor Ion Trewin, an editor, publisher and author.
Wood maintained that the Man Booker Prize is designed to reflect the experience of the British reader. She said that in considering all that is available to readers in the UK, the design of the Prize is such that it corroborates with the unlikeliness of a reader standing in a bookshop and judging a book based on the passport of its author.
But even according to the existing rules, a novelist from a country like India, which is now the second-largest publishing market in English language worldwide, hailed by several prominent literary stalwarts as the emerging capital of global literature, hosting more literary events and selling more books than most other countries, still requires to be published in the UK to compete for the award.
On this being pointed out and on being asked whether she, in her capacity as the Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, felt a need to re-look at some of the rules to make the Prize truly global in its character, she said it's something they "think about" but maintained that the restriction of being published in the UK is the "most coherent one".
"It's interesting you should raise this question, though, because, of course, it's something we think about. It's important to view the Man Booker Prize for Fiction alongside its younger sibling, the Man Booker International Prize, which rewards fiction translated into English. We think this offers a good global span, but it has to have some parameters, or the judging process would be impossible. The restriction of being published in the UK and available to UK readers is the most coherent one we've thought of," she added.
Wood acknowledged that fiction written in English but not published in the UK, or fiction written in other languages but not translated in the UK, can't be considered under the current rules.
"But we hope that the openness of Man Booker judges to reading books from all over the world will encourage British and Irish publishers to take on more fiction from elsewhere," she said.
And as for India, she said that she would love to have more Indian authors on the judging panel. "But when I ask, they are mostly too busy writing to take part -- which I think is, in its own way, a good thing for literature," she shared.
Wood pointed out that each year, the Frankfurt Book Fair takes place just before the Man Booker winner is announced. "And each year we're reminded that many writers on the shortlist establish lifelong relationships with international publishers as a result. So although the Prize sheds direct light on one book by each author, it will lead those authors to publishers who will go on to publish all of their books, all over the world, in the future," she added.
Wood, who, as the head of books at the Daily Telegraph, "reinvigorated the paper's literary coverage", is an accomplished author and is published widely. In continuation with her prior accomplishments, as the Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, she has had a ringside view of literature globally. All of this (and more) at a time when there has been a parallel rise of social media, platforms like Netflix, studies suggesting that human attention span is shrinking and the closing down of physical bookstores across the globe at a fast pace.
"Without question, books are here to stay. They may shift shape, but reading will remain, and fiction will always allow people to expand their capacity for imagination and empathy. You see this everywhere, from primary schools to prisons. But I also think of books as being part of the whole world, not just part of the book world, and I worry that we can get blinkered. If people's attention spans change, if films or TV series create new structures for telling stories, if social media generates a new language: Those are all things from which fiction can benefit," she said in response to a question on what the future holds for books.
Wood added that sometimes there is too much interest in the creation of a "finely crafted novel" and not enough interest in "reflecting various forms of reality or thought".
"If the nature of reading changes, then writing can too, and in this way we all move forward. The 2018 Man Booker winner, 'Milkman' by Anna Burns, is a case in point. Some people have found it difficult to read, others have found it to be coruscatingly true to life. The fact is, it is like life, a certain kind of life, but it is not like very many novels. Of course, an old-fashioned novel can still come out as the strongest, but we can't want all novels to be alike. We have to be open to hearing voices that affect us, however they go about it," she said.