Why US writers should back away from the Man Booker
This prize used to be a chance for Americans to hear about other authors, laments Ron Charles
Nothing shatters the mystique of the floating city like seeing a McDonald’s in Venice. But such deflating sights have been the norm for years. American colonisation of the world’s economy is complete. Earlier this year in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, we listened to music under a sun-blocking billboard for Netflix’s Glow.
That moment came back to me when I read the list of finalists for the Man Booker Prize. For the first time, half of the nominees for Britain’s most prestigious literary award are Americans: 4321 by Paul Auster (US) History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan) Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) It’s not that American novelists are suddenly writing better books. No, this US invasion is the result of a controversial adjustment to the prize’s eligibility rules. In 2014, the Booker judges opened their doors to include anyone writing a novel in English. (The prize had previously been limited to novels by authors in the Commonwealth.) After that change, two Americans immediately made the shortlist. The next year, Marlon James, a Jamaican writer living in Minnesota, won the prize. In 2016, the American writer Paul Beatty won. This year, an American has a 50/50 chance of being announced the winner on 17 October.
Some British writers, notably Booker winner AS Byatt, have complained about the way this rule change dilutes the prize’s identity and creates an impossible task for judges. With no criteria except “written in English”, the Booker prize sinks into an ocean of titles that no panel of readers can credibly survey. But that’s for the Brits to worry about.
As Americans, we should be more concerned about the loss of cultural diversity, about the closure of yet another avenue for us to experience something beyond our own borders. It’s no criticism to say that this year’s finalists by Auster, Fridlund and Saunders are all distinctly American novels. But for any serious reader of fiction in the US, the Americanisation of the Booker prize is a lost opportunity to learn about great books that haven’t been widely heralded.
As flattering as it is for US novelists to be invited into the UK arena, Americans don’t need any encouragement to trumpet their own books. As a nation, the US is already depressingly xenophobic when it comes to our reading choices.
And besides, American novelists already have prestigious awards reserved just for them, including the Pulitzer prize in Fiction and the National Book Awards. Opening the Booker up to any work of fiction written in English comes perilously close to creating another bloated monster like the Nobel prize in literature, an award with such broad standards that it stands for nothing at all.
But literary prizes are conflicted organisations. They want to promote literary excellence, of course, but they also want to promote themselves. In a universe of ever-escalating awards and ever-diminishing attention, every prize is fighting for recognition. What better way to garner more press than to sprinkle some beloved American names among the finalists.
But that’s a competition with diminishing returns. The Brits need to admit that they made a mistake. For the good of the Commonwealth – and the United States – the Booker prize administrators need to stage a literary Brexit.
Shortlisted for words, not nationality … from top: Mohsin Hamid, Ali Smith, George Saunders