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A week of prizes

21 October 2013

This has been a week full of prize announcements, with Alice Munro being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Eleanor Catton winning the Booker.

Alice Munro's was a popular win, with many people feeling glad it has gone to the veteran Canadian writer, who had only recently announced that she would not be writing another book. Maybe this will make her change her mind, but the sad news that she is too ill to travel to the Nobel ceremony suggests otherwise. She has a much wider audience than many Nobel Prize-winners and was awarded the Prize as ‘a master of the contemporary short story'.

Eleanor Catton winning the Booker with The Luminaries, a big sprawling novel set in Victorian times, will be greeted enthusiastically by booksellers and probably by readers too. It's her second novel and she is the youngest person ever to be shortlisted, as well as being the youngest winner. Brought up in England and now living in New Zealand, she is very much a Commonwealth writer and only the second New Zealander to win since Keri Hulme's fairly incomprehensible The Bone People.

And that's it for the Booker we have had for 44 years. Next year, with the opening up of the Prize to novels written in English anywhere, it will become a different animal. There's been much doom-saying about the danger of Americans dominating future shortlists and British writers not getting a look in. Perhaps we Brits should have more faith in our writers.

But the surprising thing really is how much the Booker has managed to dominate the register of international prizes. It isn't the biggest prize, both the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award(for children's writing) dwarf it in terms of the amount the author gets. Various awards are more prestigious, but it is the Booker which has managed to grab the headlines and set the agenda. Part of the point of the rule change is to bite away at the raison d'etre of the new Folio Prize, which also aims to be more literary than the Booker. But it's going to be hard for the new prize to catch up with the Booker, especially with the complicated academy structure of the nominations and judging for the Folio.

And really, perhaps the point is that the Booker has a well-established international identity, much-helped by steady and generous sponsorship over the years from Booker McConnell and then the Man Group. It doesn't always manage this, but mostly the Booker both sets the agenda and comes up with a book that plenty of people will want to read. And who can ask for more from a literary prize?