The Daily Telegraph
‘Colonial framework’ limited Booker Prize, says foundation chief
Gaby Wood claims that allowing writers from only Commonwealth countries overlooked many good ones
THE Booker Prize operated under a “colonial framework” when it included only Commonwealth writers, the chairman of the award’s foundation says.
She also claims it is “remarkable in the 21st century” the British Empire should be considered an “appropriate container” for assessing works of literature.
For its first 45 years, the prize was open to British, Irish and Commonwealth authors writing in the English language. A 2014 rule change opened the prize to everyone, prompting fears of American dominance.
The 2021 shortlist includes three US authors – Patricia Lockwood, Richard Powers and Maggie Shipstead – and only one British, Nadifa Mohamed.
Sri Lanka’s Anuk Arudpragasam and South Africa’s Damon Galgut complete the list. Gaby Wood, chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, was asked if she would revert to the earlier system if British authors protested about the balance of British to US writers.
“A reversion is a little bit problematic. I prefer the idea of evolution,” she said.
“There are political as well as literary problems with reverting to a Commonwealth framework – I mean, it is essentially a colonial framework.”
The chairman of this year’s judging panel is Prof Maya Jasanoff, who lectures on the British Empire. She said: “There is so much attention being paid to the passports held by authors when literature more and more, as we go into the 21st century, crosses borders.”
Prof Jasanoff is a biographer of Joseph Conrad, and once wrote an article for The Guardian headlined: “How Joseph Conrad foresaw the dark heart of Brexit Britain.”
Ms Wood said it was absurd that Commonwealth writers had been eligible for the prize before 2014 simply because their home countries were colonised by the British, while from countries colonised by other European nations could not be considered.
She cited Maaza Mengiste. Shortlisted last year, she was born in Ethiopia, which was part of Italian East Africa in the early 20th century.
“She was just colonised by the wrong guys? I mean, Ethiopia was colonised by the Italians. Do you say ‘Sorry, you weren’t colonised by us, the really great colonisers, and so you’re not eligible’?”
The Booker Prize was the brainchild of Tom Maschler, the publisher, who was inspired by France’s Prix Goncourt.
He secured funding from Booker Mcconnell, the food wholesaler. In the early days, the company bought quantities of the winning book and distributed them to Commonwealth countries with which it traded.
Maschler once said that “the Booker may be the most important thing I’ve ever done”. The winner of this year’s prize will be announced on Nov 3.
So no Kazuo Ishiguro. No Rachel Cusk or Francis Spufford. Once again the Brits have been felled by the Booker shortlist, leaving just the Somali-british writer Nadifa Mohamed to compete alongside three Americans, one South African and one Sri Lankan for the world’s most venerable literary prize. There is no chance this year of a breakout British success story in the manner of last year’s winner Shuggie Bain. Mohamed’s novel The Fortune Men is a vivacious if uneven account of a real life miscarriage of justice involving a Somali immigrant in Tiger Bay in 1952. I can’t see it winning.
The lack of British representation on the shortlist is becoming an annual lament. The Booker’s fervent desire to distance itself from the Commonwealth and create a global prize means home-grown talent is less likely to get a look-in. Would previous winners such as William Golding or Penelope Fitzgerald be nominated today?
So who will win? With Ishiguro out the way, the South African writer Damon Galgut with his truly excellent novel The Promise is surely in pole position. Galgut has Booker form – he’s been nominated twice before – but he isn’t widely read in this country. That needs to change. The Promise, the story of a white family’s decades-long failure to honour a promise made to their black maid, is a deceptively light footed, beguilingly skittish allegory of post-apartheid
South Africa. Although not universally loved (our critic was lukewarm), to my mind it is politically chastening and technically superb. It’s hard to see any novel beating it.
That’s partly because, while there are strong books elsewhere on this shortlist, their inclusion in each instance seems to serve a particular function. Certainly it’s hard to see any one of them becoming this year’s must read. I loved A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam, about the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War, but its tectonically slow pace is unlikely to send it shooting up the best-seller charts.
It’s no surprise to see Richard Powers’ latest novel Bewilderment shortlisted – it’s the sort of worthy tome the Booker Prize loves – but it’s also a po-faced environmental jeremiad that mistakes liberal piety for imaginative engagement. No One Is Talking About This, the debut novel by the American critic Patricia Lockwood, is one of the few novels yet published to capture the atomised textures of life online, but it also feels like a suspiciously convenient fit for the “experimental” category.
And while it’s hard to argue against the inclusion of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle – a terrific freewheeling novel about a fictional female American aviator – one can’t help but wish, if it’s transporting storytelling the judges are after, that they’d opted instead for Francis Spufford’s absorbing Light Perpetual, which combines the lives of five children with the story of post-war England.
So there you have it. One clear leader and five variously compromised competitors. But let’s not run before our horse to market. For the Booker panel, of course, has a long and inglorious history of not picking the right book. The Booker Prize winner will be announced on November 3
Once again, Brits like Kazuo Ishiguro have been overlooked by the judges