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Famed author Marlon James reacts to Man Booker controversy

Earlier this week the Man Group, which funds the Booker Prize, pulled its pricey sponsorship

This week The Man Group, the financial company that funds the Booker Prize, pulled its pricey sponsorship

'These prizes do need money,' says author Marlon James, who won the Booker in 2015 for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. He hopes that in the future, literary prizes continue to broaden their scope. (Penguin Random House)

This week the news broke that the Man Group is ending its 18-year sponsorship of one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes, the Man Booker Prize.

The prize is now looking for a new commercial sponsor after the British hedge fund giant decided to cut its ties, reportedly following a spending review.

Others believe controversy within the literary world played a part, with some authors criticizing the massive investment firm's involvement. Last year, British novelist and journalist Sebastian Faulks called the firm "the enemy" and said they are "not the sort of people who should be sponsoring literary prizes; they're the kind of people literary prizes ought to be criticising ... I wouldn't feel happy about accepting money from them."

However, in a new q interview, Booker Prize-winning Jamaican author Marlon James told Tom Power he understands authors' opposition, but argues that there's a practical reality: prizes need to be funded.

"I personally didn't have a problem with The Man Group, and I didn't have a problem with the prize," says James in the interview, which will air in full next week.

In 2015, James won the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

"People ask me how I feel about the money, and that Booker was going to get the sugar and blah blah blah. And I was like, 'Can you think of anybody else who should get it? I'm from a former sugar colony,'" he says with a laugh. "Damn right I'm keeping that money."

Each year, the Man Booker Prize is awarded to the best original novel written in the English language and published in the Commonwealth.

Other critics of the Man Group sponsorship opposed the inclusion of authors from outside the Commonwealth, including the United States, which began in 2014.

James, however, believes awards should broaden their scope even further.

"It can't just be best African novel published by a mainstream publisher. What about African novels that are being published in Kinshasa right now? What about a novel in Thailand that doesn't leave Thailand? What about novels that are not written in English?" says James, who won the Booker in 2015 for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.

"This century is still pretty young and we have a chance to really blow wide open the idea of books, and the idea of literature, and what stories we can read and what stories we allow ourselves to fall in love with," he says. "And I think everybody, including prizes, can play a bigger role in bringing books to the world."

James' latest novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf combines myth, fantasy and history in what is described as “an African Game of Thrones.“

James says he would love to see everyone reading books like My Sister, the Serial Killer, the critically acclaimed and darkly comic Oyinkan Braithwaite novel about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a habit of killing her boyfriends.

"I want 10 more of those and I'll bet they're there. And I think that's one of the things that we can do with these prizes — become more exploratory. Right now prizes are for books submitted to us. What about if prizes turned to books we found?" he asks. "I think that's something we can definitely look into."

First launched in 1969, the award was initially called the Booker-McConnell Prize after the food wholesaler that initially sponsored the prize. When sponsorship shifted to the Man Group in 2002, it became the Man Booker prize. 

The asset manager has spent more than $43 million on the prize since that relationship began. The award will go ahead as usual this year.

James' latest novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is described as "an African Game of Thrones" — the first in the author's Dark Star trilogy, which weaves together myth, fantasy and history as it explores what happens when a mercenary is hired to find a missing child.

Famed author Neil Gaiman described the book as "a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made."

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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