The Man Booker prize winner was announced this week, with George Saunders becoming the second American author to claim the £50,000 prize for his novel on the grief of Abraham Lincoln after the death of his young son. Apparently carrying around the idea for two decades, Saunders’ work was praised for its originality and, as it is published by Bloomsbury, makes this year the third consecutive time an independent publisher has won the fiction award. The panel included travel writer Colin Thubron, artist Tom Phillips, novelist Sarah Hall and literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh and the unanimous decision took a total of five hours to make.
In his first full-length novel, Saunders sets his narrative in a graveyard, in 1862, with events taking place over a single night. Its unusual style, structure and mode of presenting the story were its strengths and weaknesses. Described as a verbal collage, with 16 voices in the graveyard, its initial off-putting title and opening narrative make it a rather disconnecting experience for the reader. The title refers to the transitional state between death and rebirth, following Tibetan Buddhism. The gradual comedy and emotional aspects of the novel contributed to Baroness Lola Young, chair of the 2017 judges, commenting that it “reveals a witty, intelligent and deeply moving narrative”. Saunders explores the public life of Lincoln, juxtaposed with the very personal tragedy of the death of his son, yet sentimentality is avoided.
As Saunders, 58, will receive this unique honour he can expect his sales to increase by 658%, going on last year’s figure for the week after Beatty in 2016. English students may wish to think about how we place value on works of literature, what makes works unique and original, in other words, prize winning. Saunders has won multiple awards prior to the Man Booker prize but this is his most acclaimed success and will launch his career, even at the age of almost 60. The Royal Mail will apply a postmark bearing his name to millions of stamped mail items this week. The most influential literature we receive is through the cannon but who decides the cannon, what factors are important in calling something ‘canonical’ and how does this shape our learning?