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

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Wash­ing­ton Post Ron Charles is the fic­tion edi­tor of the Wash­ing­ton Post

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.