Characterizing Prizes by their Limitations: The Future of the Man Booker
Every year the Man Booker award makes a splash in the literary world. The prize proclaims the best in British and Commonwealth literature and by virtue of not being open to American authors (or anyone outside of the Commonwealth) introduces the American public and the rest of the world to novelists they may not have heard of or otherwise have had access to before. Often the choice of nominees will create buzz and sometimes controversy, which invariably opens a conversation about how one type of literature may differ from another–how we do not have one global literature, but rather literatures around the globe. This year the Man Booker created a very different kind of buzz. The committee of the 45-year-old prize announced on September 18th that they would be opening the award to the Americans.
The reaction to the announcement was swift. It ranged, on both sides of the Atlantic, from the manic to the meditative, the seriously concerned to the seriously concerning. A commentary in the L. A. Times, for instance, asserted no less than that the Man Booker prize’s previous exclusion was “redolent of anti-Americanism” and even “a form of protectionism” against American novelists winning. Philip Hensher reported in The Guardian that a London agent, upon hearing the news, remarked, “Well, that’s the end of the Booker, then.” The Canadian columnist Heather Mallick took the announcement as an opportunity to reveal that “A Canadian or British novel is as different from an American novel as asphalt is from cloth,” partly because “Americans don’t speak English. They speak American.” Melvyn Bragg described the move as “rather like a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate.” Jeanette Winterson informed The Telegraph that “f******* management culture” is to blame for this “terrible idea,” an idea she said every other writer she had met agreed was horrendous, and that “The Americans aren’t going to open up the Pulitzer to us…This country is so in thrall to America. We’re such lapdogs to them and that will skew things with the judges.” John Banville, who won the Booker in 2005, seemed frightened: “God help the rest of us,” he told the BBC, “because American fiction is very strong.” By contrast, Carolyn Wood, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers was less theatrical and took the change as a worthy challenge for Canadian novelists. “We punch above our weight,” she said, “and that won’t change because American authors are included.”
Meanwhile, Hensher himself mused that the decision might mark the loss of new voices under the weight of added submissions (though the Booker judges will not be reading more submissions altogether). He also worried that the style of novels submitted will become more and more “American,” as this year’s shortlist’s “superficial multicultural aspect” conceals “a specifically North-American taste,” not least because Jhumpa Lahiri considers herself an American writer and Ruth Ozeki, a dual citizen, was born in Connecticut. “Booker” novels, after all, often tend to draw from the shared historical legacy of the Commonweath, are less likely to be minimalistic, and often resist the urge to simply quickly tell stories the way that dirty-realist or minimalist novels do. Beyond this, the Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra interpreted the Booker’s move as “one more sign of the steady erasure of national and historical specificity,” as the novels will, in the worst case scenario, all resemble each other rather than deal with that which is unique to particular cultures and histories; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, for instance, would be impossible without the cultural differences between its Pakistani narrator and the American he is speaking to.
Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the prize in 1989, supported the decision, remarking that it is “sad in a way because of the traditions of the Booker, and I can understand some people feeling a bit miffed, but the world has changed and it no longer makes sense to split up the writing world in this way.” The most visible of the concerned may be Lady Antonia Fraser, historian and wife of the late Harold Pinter, who resigned from the advisory committee of the international version of the prize after hearing the announcement. Jim Crace, whose Harvest is on the current shortlist and who may therefore have the most to lose by speaking out, told the Independent that “‘If you open the Booker prize to all people writing in the English language it would be a fantastic overview of English language literature but it would lose a focus. I’m very fond of the sense of the Commonwealth. There’s something in there that you would lose if you open it up to American authors” and further that “In principle, I should believe in all prizes being open to everyone. But I think prizes need to have their own characters, and sometimes those characters are defined by their limitations.”
And this prize has long been defined by its limitations, created to, in the Foundation’s own words, “promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.” This is a specific geographic designation–and a prize must have some limiting criteria. In the Booker’s case there is also the Booker International, which is open to writers of any nationality and deals with a writer’s body of work, and which has been won by Americans twice: Philip Roth and Lydia Davis. The Man Booker has often given young or unknown writers within the Commonwealth a chance to become well-known and enrich literature with their contributions (like Donal Ryan, whose debut novel was rejected 47 times before becoming longlisted for the Booker this year), and its winners almost always experience great sales bumps; the Pulitzer, open only to Americans, is more likely to go to an already publicized book, and the winner is less guaranteed a boost in sales. Moreover, while there are many prizes open to American writers, there are fewer prizes that allow writers within the Commonwealth a chance to compete against each other, especially since the Commonwealth Prize–once offered to novels–is at present only a short-story prize. While some consider the term “Commonwealth literature” problematic, like Salman Rushdie, there are still literary connections, based on the wide historical legacy of the Commonwealth, that tend to stylistically and thematically link Booker novels, and this literature–which needs a new name, to paraphrase the title of NoViolet Bulawayo’s shortlisted novel–will not be the same with American novels in the mix. Additionally, it is important to remember that the Booker novels create an exchange of ideas and conversation amongst American novelists and critics with regards to what is going on in the rest of the English writing world. The conversation would not be as rich if the same novelist wins the Pulitzer and the Booker; the Booker, like the Pulitzer, creates its own literary currency.
And currency of a different kind, unfortunately, may be the primary motivation behind the Booker’s decision. After all, the chair of the Booker committee, Jonathan Taylor, did not offer a more rational argument in the foundation’s press release for the announcement. Instead, Taylor presented a strange and ungainly analogy. “It is rather,” Taylor said of the prize not including American novels, “as if the Chinese were excluded from the Olympic Games. I appreciate,” Taylor added quickly, “this analogy is not entirely appropriate.” And it is inappropriate on more than one level; it suggests, almost underhandedly, that not including American novelists is some form of inadmissible discrimination akin to racism, when a geographically defined prize is anything but this. Taylor might as well have argued that Raymond Carver should retroactively win the Hugo Award–and the power of American publishing houses might not have dissuaded him from that analogy, either.
Jim Crace, unpleased with Taylor’s penniless analogy, explained why: “it will mean that fewer up-and-coming Commonwealth writers will get a showing. There’ll be fewer new or small publishing houses. And, third, most importantly in my view, it’s like saying the Commonwealth Games should be open to Americans — because we want it to reflect the best in athletics. The Commonwealth Prize is about celebrating the Commonwealth and the special relationship we have with the ex-colonies — which is part guilt and part warmth — and the Booker Prize isn’t an essential part of that but it is part of that.” And another part that is now playing an important role is the fact that we, as writers, do not live in a writers’ market, but a publishers’ market; the Bookers’ decision, under the guise of beneficent inclusivity and political correctness, only tightens this corporate noose around the necks of many Commonwealth writers. No doubt afraid of the rival Folio Prize (as well as similar prizes like the IMPAC Dublin prize), which is open to writers of any nationality, the Booker wishes to sacrifice its ideals to be the biggest game in town–and this makes literature into a logo, sweeps history under a corporation’s rug.
We posit that the Booker, if persistent in the new guise it sees itself in, will become an interesting commodity for a little while. Its product value will skyrocket as long as its novelty remains, but when the Booker and the Pulitzer begin to award their prizes to the same novels–and, as Hensher noted, “it will be a brave Booker panel in 2014 that doesn’t give the prize to an American novel”–the diversity of quality novels entered into the Booker may not increase but may in fact flatten out and decrease, and with that decrease will follow a draining of the depth of our various cultural conversations. Significant but previously little-known novelists like Jeet Thayil and Keri Hulme would never have had a chance to be nominated for the prize or win the Booker respectively. The former’s novel, Narcopolis, was panned by the Indian critics before U.K. critics recognized its literary merit and the latter’s novel, The Bone People, which won the Booker for 1985, was a novel that had not once been edited before its publication. Hulme’s novel, published by a small publishing house in New Zealand called Spiral, created literary history by being an example of an otherwise unknown novelist having been taken on. Examples like these show the Booker at its best.
The fine print of this new policy also expects all publishers to contribute 5, 000 pounds along with their submission if their submission is shortlisted. And if their submission were to win they would be expected to contribute another 5, 000 pounds. This caveat may not be entirely unreasonable, considering a simple nomination sees sales rising, but the darker side of this new policy is the fact that if your publishing house has not had a winner before, you cannot submit more than one entry and the 5,000-pound fees alone creates a model in which big publishers are favored over smaller ones. In a world of mass-market publicity, there is currency to currency, but the slap in the face the Booker foundation has delivered to smaller publishing houses is also a slap in the face not only to the foundation’s own history but also to–taking case studies like Keri Hulme in particular–literary history, as well.
Are novels then that all follow a less culturally specific model going to be the thing now? Will diversity mean that everything becomes the same? Will writers follow a trend Tim Parks noted in 2010 with Ishiguro–the trend of writing “simply” and with an eye to easy translation for a wide audience, rather than focusing on cultural specificity? Not enough writers have gotten involved in speaking out about this prize–and that is a crime. If the Booker sinks under its new corporate weight, it will be because we let it go without a fight. But maybe, in the end, we writers just need to sit down and write our books. A part of being a writer is the understanding that our visions may never be acclaimed, may never be recognized. But we also need to care about these cultural and literary debates. And part of the reason the Booker is so important is that it can give young, aspiring novelists a way for that vision to be so acclaimed, a vision that the Commonwealth really does, at some level, share. For that opportunity to now be denied by such vast inclusion is a violation of that vision. Maybe we need to create our own prizes to support our own visions. We need to just write the books that we want to write and hope that we, too, will be taken up when others will not touch our work.
But what we cannot do is let this conversation die.
Misha Rai is from Haryana, India. Her fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review. She has been Assistant Fiction Editor for the Mid-American Review. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Fiction at Florida State University. She is in the process of writing her debut novel. At present she serves as Assistant Fiction Editor on The Southeast Review.
Jonathan Bellot holds an MFA from Florida State University, where he is currently pursuing his PhD in Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Humanism, Small Axe, Transnational Literature, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, Belletrist Coterie, and in other journals. He is an assistant editor for Transnational Literature. He was born in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has lived since the age of nine in the Commonwealth of Dominica, where he is a member of a committee for the Nature Island Literary Festival. He is working on his first novel.