The Man Booker International Prize — awarded last week to American writer Lydia Davis known for the extreme brevity of her stories, some as short as a sentence — is now in its fifth edition. During this period it has gone to some of the biggest names in world literature, such as Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe and Ismail Kadaré. Yet, it has struggled to carve out an independent, distinct identity for itself and is invariably confused with the more famous annual Man Booker Prize. Outside the literary world, few know it even exists. The media, which tends to follow every twist and turn around the Man Booker Prize, happily gives its “international” stablemate short shrift. Thanks to U.R. Ananthamurthy, who was in the running this year, the prize got more serious media attention in India than in Britain. The Times’ report was cheekily headed: “Lydia who? To cut a long story short, she’s won the Man Booker.” It then went on to say how the chairman of the judges “had not heard of many on the shortlist a few months ago and when the panel chose a winner there was uncertainty about how to describe her work.”
This identity crisis is not surprising, given the prize’s very fuzzy remit and the fact that it has to compete with a better-known award of the same name. It is often described as an example of a “vanity’” project which exists simply because its sponsors feel “good” about it regardless of its need or relevance. It was in 2005 that the Man Group, the British hedge fund behind the eponymous annual prize, decided to expand its literary “folio” by launching an international award to be given once in two years to recognise a writer’s lifetime achievements rather than a specific work. At the time, it seemed a good idea. There had been criticism that the annual prize was restricted to writers from the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and Ireland, leaving out a whole body of contemporary American and European literature. The Man Booker International Prize was aimed at filling that gap by extending it to any living author anywhere in the world who has “published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language.” But in the process, the pendulum swung to the other extreme with novels, short stories, poetry and translations all thrown into the mix. And, with no specific judging criterion, unlike for the annual prize, works from profoundly different literary traditions got lumped together leaving judges as well as readers confused. If the International Booker is to make a mark in a field crowded with some very good literary prizes, it definitely needs a sharper focus.