American invasion damp squib for some Man Booker diehards
No one but the jurors can say which of six short-listed books will receive the Man Booker Prize for fiction on October 15, but one thing for certain is the Americans are coming into the competition next year and the literary world is in an uproar.
It has been a week since the organisers of the prestigious prize for English-language fiction that had been reserved for writers from the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth threw open the doors to Americans and authors from all countries writing in English. Words of praise and dismay keep flowing.
A blog by British writer Philip Hensher in the Guardian was headlined: “Well, that’s the end of the Booker prize, then.” But a piece by novelist Sophie Hardach in the online edition of US-based the Atlantic bore the headline: “Of course the Booker Prize should get more inclusive – because English has.”
In the 40-plus years since the first award in 1969, the prize originally known as the Booker has helped launch the careers of a host of now famous authors, from Nigerian Ben Okri, who won for his The Famished Road in 1991, to Irish writer Anne Enright, who won the 2007 Man Booker for The Gathering.
Now the prize will be open from next year not only to the big names of American literature, including some of the best-selling authors on the planet, but also to what some literary agents and authors in Britain see as a better-funded, more cohesive literary scene in the United States.
They note that the United States has a host of prestigious prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, many open only to Americans, plus well-funded writing courses at universities from New York to Indiana and Omaha to California.
“If anything I’m a bit saddened” by the opening up to competition from America, Lisa Eveleigh of the Richard Becklow Literary Agency in London, said.
“I don’t think writers get the help here that they get in America and I don’t frankly think America needs it.”
In announcing the change, Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation that bestows the honour, said: “The prize is now widely regarded as the most important and influential award for literary fiction in the English-speaking world. But paradoxically, it has not allowed full participation for all those writing literary fiction in English.
“It’s rather as if the Chinese were excluded from the Olympics.”
Novelist Hardach perhaps saw herself in Taylor’s simile.
“In my case, even though I live here, I’m married to an Englishman, I pay my taxes here, I’m published in the UK, I signed up with a UK publisher and write in English, in fact my second novel is even set in London, I can’t be eligible for the Booker because I have a German passport,” Hardach said.
There is, though, a line of thought which has it that Britain working with its former colonies grouped as the Commonwealth for sporting events, trade and a literary prize celebrates a common heritage, one that America rejected in 1776.
“For our authors it is impossible to win an American prize ... so it seems rather unfair to me that we should open our prize to them when they don’t open their prizes to us,” said Felicity Bryan, head of an Oxford literary agency.
Briton Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest is deemed one of the leading contenders to win the Man Booker this year, makes an even more resounding case for keeping out the Americans.
“What I feel is certain is that when the excellent American novelists are included in this, the fixed shortlists of books are much less likely to include newcomers from the old Commonwealth countries or newcomers indeed from the UK and that link is going to be broken,” Crace said.
But Irish novelist and 2007 winner Enright said, in effect, that it was time to move beyond queen, country and Commonwealth.
“The English-language book market is, like everything else, becoming more international, especially with the rise of the ebook,” Enright told the Irish Times.
“It is inevitable that a major prize should reflect this globalisation. I always felt the Commonwealth plus Ireland was a bit of a post-imperial, sun-setting-over-the- empire kind of categorisation.”