The Booker’s roaring forties
Established in 1969, the Man Booker is one of the most enduring literary prizes. Nearing 50 is an excellent age at which to have a midlife crisis, and it has a juicy one ahead.
How often has doom been predicted for the prize? In 1996, VS Naipaul, a winner for his 1971 novel In A Free State, declared that the Booker was “murder”. He chose the day of the prize announcement to tell a columnist: “Absolutely nothing would be lost if it withered away and died. It is useless . . . No one knows what a novel is any more — it is all foolish.”
Over the next two decades, both the novel, and the Booker, survived his withering dismissal. Indeed, the prize only grew in influence and power, among booksellers, publishers and readers alike. In India, it is one of only two international literary awards that has caught the public imagination — the other being the Nobel.
In 2002, the year the Man Group took over the sponsorship of the Booker, the jury’s chair Lisa Jardine said opening the prize to Americans would make it “blandly generic”. It took until 2014 to widen the scope of the Booker from the UK, Ireland and countries of the former Commonwealth to include US writers.
At first, I grumbled to friends about the invasion of the Americans, but it’s hard to be a grinch when the shortlists include favourite authors from Karen Joy Fowler to Paul Beatty — the first American winner in 2016 — and this year George Saunders, the bookies’ favourite. It might take another year before I adjust to the new, US-on-board shortlists, and I continue to contradict myself. First I lament that the prize feels like a Pulitzer-National Book Awards-Olde Booker mash-up — then I complain US writer Colson Whitehead should really have made the cut.
But there are good reasons for the Booker to cross borders. The complaint that the Pulitzer and the NBA do not embrace non-American writers raises the obvious question: why aren’t they more open? If some of today’s most interesting non-fiction and science writing prizes are comfortably, unfussily transnational, surely we could make an argument for more inclusive, international fiction prizes.
Leaving the past behind isn’t easy. In 2014, the Australian author and two-time winner Peter Carey expressed his concerns. “There was and there is a real Commonwealth culture,” he said, suggesting that the Booker had a particular cultural flavour, and that America wasn’t really part of that. His fears that the prize could lose its identity are not unfounded.
Was that identity worth holding on to, though? “Countries of the former Commonwealth” feels like an increasingly uncertain and politically contentious category. As the writer and historian Amitav Ghosh said in 2001, asking that his books be withdrawn from consideration for the Commonwealth Prize, many citizens of the former Commonwealth reject being defined by an empire that once conquered and ruled their countries. For many Indian writers from the post-Ghosh generation, for example, the “Commonwealth” tag carries little meaning — it may not stir them to protest, but nor do most young writers feel any flicker of belonging.
That leaves one major fear — US domination at the expense of other countries less blessed with literary heavyweights. But suggesting that American novelists should be excluded because they have this awful habit of being terribly good at writing is just whingeing. Between India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Canada, Australia, Ireland, the UK and the rest, I’m sure we can scrape up a decent entry or two, most years.
The Booker’s decision to handle its midlife crisis by developing bigger ambitions is in line with the prize’s origins. Tom Maschler, who headed Jonathan Cape, decided Britain needed a prize that could create the kind of interest and keen anticipation after he witnessed the impact of the Prix Goncourt in France. He and the late Martyn Goff, who steered the prize for many decades as its administrator, were convinced the prize had to highlight books with great literary quality that also had popular appeal.
The Booker attracted, and sometimes embraced, controversy from the start. Malcolm Muggeridge, judging the 1971 prize, wrote plaintively to the Sunday Telegraph: “The great bulk of the novels were so full of four-letter words and every variety of sick erotica that I had to withdraw, nauseated and appalled.” (Sadly, the 1971 shortlist does not live up to this tempting endorsement.) In 1972, John Berger used his winnings to protest against the then Booker-McConnell’s 130-year-old trading interests in the Caribbean, a history that contributed to exploitation.
Many complain that the Man Booker has wielded a power and influence far greater than most other literary prizes, especially since media coverage began to expand in the 2000s, and that is true. Its new ambitions are grandly imperial, but they’ve brought life back into our annual Booker discussions, whether you love or loathe those dastardly prizewinning US writers. Other prizes the world over might want to up their game, else the Booker will dominate the decades ahead, the way it’s done in the past.
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