British miffed as Booker Prize now open to Americans
The Booker Prize for fiction, begun in 1969, was always something Britain and its former territories could call their own. But next year the prize will be open to anyone writing in English, bringing immediate concerns that American novels will dominate.
The New York Times
Recent Booker winners
2012: Hilary Mantel: “Bring Up the Bodies.”
2011: Julian Barnes: “The Sense of an Ending.”
2010: Howard Jacobson: “The Finkler Question.”
2009: Hilary Mantel: “Wolf Hall.”
2008: Aravind Adiga: “The White Tiger.”
2007: Anne Enright: “The Gathering.”
2006: Kiran Desai: “The Inheritance of Loss.”
2005: John Banville: “The Sea.”
2004: Alan Hollinghurst: “The Line of Beauty.”
2003: DBC Pierre: “Vernon God Little.”
2002: Yann Martel: “Life of Pi.”
Seattle Times news services
LONDON — The Americans are coming, and the British literary world is not happy.
The Man Booker Prize, which had been open to English-language novels from Britain and the Commonwealth, has just gone global, producing anxiety about damage to cultural diversity and fears that the U.S. cultural hyperpower that dominates movies and television will crush the small literary novel.
“It’s rather like a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate,” said Melvyn Bragg, an author and television host in Britain.
The Booker Prize for fiction, begun in 1969, was always something Britain and its former territories could call their own, seen as a bulwark against the spread of the American novel, that globalized product of the world’s richest market.
The award — with its publicity, its paycheck and its immediate effect on sales — has been an important boost to the careers of Canadians such as Michael Ondaatje and Yann Martel and Indians such as Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga. It has brought attention to novelists previously unknown and unpublished in the United States, and it has been an important encouragement to publishers of high-quality fiction.
This week, the chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, Jonathan Taylor, said: “We are abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries” to become a truly international prize, as a result of consultations that began in 2011. The change could enhance the Booker’s “prestige and reputation through expansion, rather than by setting up a separate prize” for Americans, he said.
Next year the prize will be open to anyone writing in English, not just citizens of Britain, the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe, bringing immediate concerns that American novels will dominate “simply through an economic superpower exerting its own literary tastes,” the British novelist Philip Hensher, who has been a Booker finalist and a judge, said in an interview.
More troubling, he said, will be the loss of “new, interesting voices.” American novels are already culturally dominant, he said. “It’s hard to think of American novels that don’t make their way into the larger English world, but I can think of Canadian, Indian, African novels that struggle to find a broader readership.”
Karolina Sutton, a literary agent who works with U.S. and British authors, said the winner of the Booker sometimes sees a sales bump of hundreds of thousands of copies, an effect that could multiply if the winner were American.
“I think it’s terrific for American publishers, terrific for American writers and it’s not bad news for readers,” she said. “It will suddenly become more competitive.”
Criticism of the prize has been a literary sport since its inception, with complaints about the winners, the judges, even the prize dinners. A.L. Kennedy, a judge in 1996, famously and ungrammatically said the winner was determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”
Kennedy is in favor of the expansion of the Booker, however, noting that other, newer prizes open to any English-language novel published in England, such as the Folio Prize (40,000 pounds, or about $64,000, which makes its first award in January) and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (100,000 euros, or about $135,000, and also open to translations) have been “nipping at its heels.” The Man Booker award comes with a prize of 60,000 pounds, or about $96,000.
Booker has also become less literary, some argue, suggesting that since the Man Group, a multinational financial company, took it over in 2002, the renamed Man Booker Prize has become more middlebrow.
Even this year, one of the six finalists, Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Lowland,” has been criticized as an American novel. Born in London, Lahiri moved to the United States at the age of 2 and generally writes about the experience of exiles living in the U.S.
“She’s an American novelist, not a Bengali novelist,” Hensher said. “Novels about Indians who leave their exotic homeland and live in New Jersey are fine, but they shouldn’t crowd out those who write about their own culture.”
He likes the American novel. But “the big novel that speaks to all the world is not at the heart of literary achievement,” he said. “Some very fine novels seem to speak much more to one culture than another and are rooted in something local.”
Jim Crace, whose novel “Harvest” is a finalist for this year’s prize, said the Man Booker would lose focus and diminish the concept of the Commonwealth. “I think prizes need to have their own characters, and sometimes those characters are defined by their limitations,” he said.
Boost for younger writers
Part of the effect of the Booker comes from the publication of a “long list” of semifinalists and then a “shortlist” of six finalists, both of which bring attention to younger writers unlikely to win and to smaller publishers. The concern is that these lists will be dominated by U.S. novelists, driving out others, diminishing the chances of a broader public discovering something daring, unfamiliar or new.
Since the judges are required, at least in principle, to read every entry, publishers will now be allowed to nominate only one novel, rather than two, which means smaller publishers will have fewer chances to get on a shortlist. Exceptions are made for publishers that have had a finalist in the past five years.
“It means the prize will be dominated by big publishing houses who maybe aren’t taking as many risks,” Anne Meadows, an editor at Granta Books, told the BBC. “Good novels will be overlooked.”
In Australia, the news didn’t go over well. Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, noted that Australian authors had only won four times since 1969, with Peter Carey winning twice, but that many Australians had been finalists.
“We should be proud of our literary voice,” she wrote in the newspaper. “But we remain a small voice.”
Americans “barely want to know about books — or music, movies, television, plays and other art forms — from outside their huge, self-sustaining culture,” Wyndham said.
She noted, as Hensher did, that American awards were unlikely to reciprocate. There is no indication that coveted prizes for U.S. writers and publishers — such as the National Book Awards and the Pulitzers — have any intention of opening up to the larger world, let alone to Britain and the Commonwealth.
The novelist Linda Grant, a finalist in 2008, said there were “two career-changing prizes, the Booker and the Pulitzer.” Now, she said, British and Commonwealth writers “will have more competition for a career-changing prize, whereas U.S. authors will have a new prize.”