John le Carré vs. the Booker Panel

 

The usually somnolent book world has been shaken up a bit over the last few days with the news that John le Carré wants to withdraw from the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize.

I am enormously flattered to be named as a finalist of 2011 Man Booker International Prize.  However I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.

This was his statement. Rather good-natured given how strongly he objects to being part of the literary establishment. In an interview for the Independent back in 1993, he said the following:

I have to tell you that I haven’t read a single English review. I never do. I cannot make it sufficiently clear that I have never been part of that world. I don’t know the people who review me, I don’t go to their parties – I never will. I don’t compete for literary prizes and I have the most profound contempt for the system – I mean, a total alienation from it. I wrote, not least in my early years, to escape institutional life and the last thing I was going to do was allow myself to become the pawn of a new institution.

In light of this notorious attitude of his, one can only wonder what the Man Booker International panel were thinking in putting him on the shortlist.

The thing about this particular prize is that it cannot be entered – there are no submissions from publishers, rather the panel just pick the list from thin air, as it were. The only rule is that the author has to have ‘published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language’.

Perhaps the judges just wanted to see le Carré rewarded for a fantastic contribution to literature in English. Perhaps they wanted to give him the recognition that they feel he deserves. But I can’t help but wonder if they thought it might be a way to catch him out. If they knew – and how could they not – that he refuses to enter prizes, what could be more satisfying than giving him a prize for which he cannot enter? Gotcha. But le Carré so obviously feels strongly about not getting any awards, it seems mean to try and snare him like this. It seems so inappropriate, a bit like throwing a huge surprise party for the shyest kid in the class. At least le Carré didn’t burst into tears.

But when he, rather elegantly, asked to be taken off the shortlist, the Booker panel responded with a firm refusal:

John le Carré’s name will, of course, remain on the list.

What I particularly object to is the ‘of course’ in the middle of the sentence. Oh, of course, he’ll stay on the list. Why on earth did you think that his asking to be taken off it would hold any sway at all? Of course his wishes don’t matter. If an author expressly states that he doesn’t want to play the game, doesn’t it feel a bit like bullying to force him to take part? Doesn’t it show a huge amount of disrespect for le Carré? In completely ignoring his wishes, like this, the panel are essentially saying that they, as readers, have more right over his work than le Carré does himself.

Perhaps it has slipped your mind, but back in 2003 a list was leaked of people who refused honours from the Queen. Among the 300 names was John le Carré, who refused a CBE. Surely this makes the Booker panel’s decision to resolutely keep him on the shortlist even more ridiculous? If the Queen can graciously allow her subject to refuse an honour that she would like to bestow on him, then the Booker panel should be able to manage the same.

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