Bad News for Britain’s Top Book Prize

Once a cultural vehicle for new voices, the Booker will miss out by letting American-born authors in

  • Share
  • Read Later

Some of this year's Man Booker Prize shortlisted titles seen at The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion on Sep. 10, 2013 in London.

When the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced Sept. 10, TIME’s book critic, Lev Grossman, and I promptly got in a little fight about Jhumpa Lahiri. “How is she eligible?” I asked. “She was born in Rhode Island.” No, no, said Lev, she was born in India. We were both wrong: Lahiri was born in the United Kingdom. Hence, though she grew up in America, has won a Pulitzer Prize and writes chiefly of immigrants shuttling between the U.S. and India, she is eligible for England’s most famous literary honor.

Apparently the administrators of the Man Booker prize don’t want Lev and me to argue anymore, at least not about such matters as citizenship. This weekend, it was reported that starting next year the Booker would open its doors to American-born writers. (A Booker spokesman has declined to comment on the news but promised changes to the prize will be announced soon.) The argument, according to the Sunday Times, is that excluding American writers is an anachronism and that to stay relevant the prize must embrace the entire Anglophone world. The truth is that this latest decision, far from increasing the prize’s relevancy, seems destined to dilute it.

The rationale that the prize needs American fiction seems tenuous; the Booker has had no trouble getting headlines in America to date, and anyone who cares about literary fiction knows about it. Even in its off years, the Booker is a go-to place for those who lament the dearth of experimentation and innovation in American fiction—subject as it is to the pressures of a mass market and the decline of financial support for the solid mid-list author. America has its  own prizes, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, and they already bend over backwards reacting against each other. As an American reader, I count on the Booker to deliver different sensibilities.

(MORE: Why You Should Care About the Man Booker Prize)

Some critics, such as M.A. Orthofer at the Literary Saloon, have responded positively to this report, on the premise that inclusion is always better than exclusion and that the U.S. influx will make for stiffer competition. And it’s been pointed out—vis-a-vis my quarrel with Lev—that distinctions about birthplace are moot in the era of globalization, when a small group of elite literary writers routinely cross borders to attend festivals, teach and write at universities and tour in support of their books, not to mention change their place of residence. (Salman Rushdie and Peter Carey have moved to New York and J.M. Coetzee now lives in Australia, to name just a few.) Their national ties are muddled enough, so why not throw in the Americans? If all fiction is local, maybe it’s also all global.

But the organization of literature demands some categorization, and imperfect though those processes may be, prizes (and syllabi and anthologies) can never be truly inclusive. They’re premised on division and selection, for reasons of sheer bulk. If the Man Booker really wanted to open its doors, why not drop the restriction on publishers that each imprint can submit only two works of fiction for consideration? Impossible: there would simply be too many books for the judges to read. Does greater geographic range always lead to more rigorous, responsive prize-giving? Let me ask this: how often have you been happy with the Nobel Prize for Literature in the past two decades?

A revised Man Booker would be an endorsement of a fully globalized Anglophone literary stage, in which the only common denominator is our language. (Though not, of course, diction, nor necessarily syntax. And definitely not style.) But ultimately, the American inclusion would mean that the Man Booker is voluntarily ending its status as an arbiter of English literature—a canon with a longer and decidedly different cultural and political history than American lit, which the Booker itself played a role in transforming. Considering how quickly the Booker earned that arbiter status, it seems to me a pity to give up the prospect of continuing it. And I’m not saying this just because I want Hilary Mantel to score a hat trick.

(MORE: Hilary Mantel’s Books Sales Skyrocket After Kate Middleton Comments)

For those who see leaving American authors out of contention as old-fashioned, it’s worth recalling that the Booker was founded on an anachronism: its criteria for selection drew on the contours of a past empire. Established in 1969—“a grim time for serious fiction,” the critic Malcolm Bradbury would later recall—the Booker prize was to be given yearly to the best novel written by a citizen of “the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland.” The first prize, with a cash value of £5,000, went to P.H. Newby for Something to Answer For. Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch were among the shortlisted authors, and the judges’ panel included Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender. But the Booker drew little attention throughout the 1970s, despite honoring such talents as Murdoch, Penelope Fitzgerald, V.S. Naipaul and Nadine Gordimer. It was Rushdie’s victory with Midnight’s Children in 1981 that made the Booker a household name in England, not only because Rushdie’s novel was such a boundary-breaker but also because that was the first year the gala dinner and awards ceremony were televised live.

Hoopla, though, only goes so far. What made the Booker a terrific prize was that, for a couple of decades, it tapped almost unerringly into the literary-political zeitgeist. If you want to see a prize at its liveliest and most relevant, have a look at the Booker shortlists and winners of the 1980s and ’90s, when the “English” novel was undergoing radical reconstruction by writers from very non-English places. Of the ten winners from 1981 to 1990, only Anita Brookner, Kingsley Amis and A.S. Byatt were born in England, a stark contrast to prize’s previous 12 years, in which only four winners were not born in England. You can chart the rise of postcolonial fiction—fiction by writers from the former British empire that challenged those imperial lines of influence and power—through the Booker’s arc: from Carey to Michael Ondaatje to Arundhati Roy to Coetzee. There were some first-class English-born writers in the winner’s circle in those years too. But through astute judging the Booker became the cultural vehicle of a new chorus of voices, for whom the sun didn’t rise and set along English horizons. In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, that was quite an accomplishment.

(VIDEO: Salman Rushdie on Bringing Midnight’s Children to the Big Screen)

And so the Booker was a catalyst not just for controversy but for conversation. People wrote books about it. The New Yorker published a piece by Jonathan Wilson in 1995 investigating the “racially charged battle over the changing profile of the English author,” in which he aired tensions revealed by the Booker’s spotlight. I was a graduate student in English and Comparative Literature in the late ’90s at Columbia University, where postcolonial fiction was a presiding field of study, and the Booker provided a living syllabus. You could argue—many did—that channeling a prestigious award out of London just reinforced those old hierarchies of cultural imperialism, but you couldn’t deny that the winning novels from the prize’s golden age were, for the most part, really excellent books that deserved the attention they got. (I even liked The Bone People.) And they have had staying power. I have no doubt they will represent that period of 20th century literature for decades into the future.

This is what makes the American amendment so mistaken. Prizes are the original recommendation engine. They help us figure out what to read, and in the best of cases, as the Booker did at the turn of the millennium, they help us track how what we read changes, and why. The Booker succeeded as a prize that opened up the English canon to writers for whom Englishness was a provocative if not downright oppressive force. This question of cultural legitimacy—a theme that pervades English literature from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India—came to life in the Booker roster, where so-called Commonwealth writers stood side by side with their English counterparts and beat them more often than not. That’s still its most important legacy. And it wouldn’t be as strong if in 2001 Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections had muscled a win over Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

MORE: Britain’s Book Bookies — Betting on The Nobel Prize for Literature