Five things to know about the Booker Prize, the British Goncourt

The Booker Prize, the British equivalent of the Goncourt for half a century, is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, and is a promise of accelerating sales for the winners. This year he rewards the Scottish Douglas Stuart for his first novel “Shuggie Bain”, the story of a boy who protects his alcoholic mother in the Glasgow of the Thatcher years. If you are not familiar with this literary award, here are five things to know before the award ceremony scheduled for the night of Thursday, November 19.

“Man Booker Prize”, a not so literary name in reality …

The name of the prize first: “Man Booker Prize”. Be careful, its origin is not really literary. The award was established in 1969 with funding from England’s largest food wholesaler, Booker. British publishers, eager to find an English equivalent to the venerable Goncourt Prize, approached Jock Campbell, President of Booker and lover of literature, to sponsor the project.

The prize was renamed the “Man Booker Prize” in 2002 when the Man Group hedge fund in turn became a financial sponsor. It regained its old name in 2019 when it passed into the hands of the American charity Crankstart, founded by billionaires in Silicon Valley.

A very well endowed price

The prize is awarded to a novel written in English and published in the UK or Ireland. The winner, whose name is unveiled each year in autumn in London, wins 50,000 pounds (approximately 55,800 euros). Each finalist also pockets 2,500 pounds (approximately 2,790 euros). These sums are far from those of the Nobel Prize for Literature endowed with 844,000 euros, but are among the most generous endowments among literary awards, like the Pulitzer Prize (nearly 13,600 euros) or the National Book Award to the United States (approximately 59,000 euros).

In France, the Goncourt prize offers only symbolic ten euros to the winner, but is accompanied by the promise of record sales. The winner of the Booker, too, “is assured of international recognition and a strong increase in sales“, according to the site of the English price.

Five jurors

For each edition, a Booker committee makes up a panel of about five jurors, most often personalities from the literary world made up of writers, critics and publishers. They have several months to read the many books in the running, then pre-select a dozen. From this selection emerge finalists, then a single winner is named. Except in 2019, 1997 and 1974, where two authors were crowned.

Translations also rewarded

In 2016, a parallel prize was created to reward fiction translated into English and published, again, in the United Kingdom or in Ireland. The author and translator of the winning novel share the £ 50,000 endowment of the International Booker Prize, unveiled each year in May. French writer Annie Ernaux was part of the final selection in 2019 for Years, translated by Alison Strayer.

The controversies

Reserved for British, Irish, Zimbabwean and Commonwealth authors, the Booker Prize opened to American writers in 2014, sparking heated debate in the United Kingdom over the original purpose of the prize. The double winner Peter Carey had denounced in 2017 an award only funded by Man Group to improve its brand image. The selection of suitors has been criticized as being arbitrary, dissensions have sometimes stirred the jury and the choice of the winner, sometimes openly repudiated by a juror, is subject to controversy.

The winners aren’t always happy either: in his acceptance speech in 1972, the English winner John Berger lamented the competitive spirit. “detestable” surrounding the reward. The committed writer donated half of the money earned from his prize to the African-American revolutionary movement of the Black Panthers to denounce the exploitation of the Caribbean by commercial companies, including the financial sponsor of the Booker Prize.

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Five things to know about the Booker Prize, the British Goncourt

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