The Man Booker Prize

My friend Nicole posted this article by Michelle Dean onto her Facebook page:

Why the Man Booker Prize Should Keep Americans Out to Keep the Rest of the World In

I found myself identifying with every word in this article, by a fellow expat-in-the-US Canadian, to the degree that I began to wonder whether I had in fact developed some sort of second identity and had actually written it myself (Anne of Green Gables? Check. AS Byatt and Hilary Mantel? Check. Squishy feelings of treachery the day I got US citizenship? Check. Okay, that is me identifying with David Rakoff.) And I have similar personal reasons for wishing the Booker would remain closed to American writers. Frankly, I don’t find I connect much with American literary writing, past or present, and if I want literary fiction, I tend to turn to a Commonwealth author. It was very kind of the Booker over the last decades to make the best easy for me (and I think this is the place to subtly work in the fact that my cousin Alison Pick was longlisted for the Booker in 2011.)

But I can accept that the Man Booker people are not attending to my interests and desires. They are still making a mistake. The main reason the Man Booker people should not open their prize to Americans, is that it risks making the prize irrelevant. There are already several internationally prominent American prizes for best American book. The Booker risks becoming an also-ran, the Golden Globes of the book world. “We liked it too!” “Yeah, big deal.” Or maybe year after year, they will resolutely not give it to an American; maybe that is part of the point. And then we’ll be subjected to headlines “Americans shut out of Man Booker again,” “Franzen snubbed by Man Booker Committee,” before finally, “First American to win the Man Booker.” Spare me.

How do you feel?

4 thoughts on “The Man Booker Prize

  1. Bryn Greenwood

    I wish only that people did not feel the need to discuss this in terms of “cultural superiority” or imply that there is a dearth of quality American literary fiction. To discuss it in those terms is uselessly denigrating to American writers. Who does it benefit to trash talk one group of writers? To my eye, no one benefits from those assertions. As much as I have a great love of Commonwealth writers from all periods, I do not think they are inherently more talented than their American counterparts.

    That said, I find the decision to permit American fiction into the running for the Man Booker prize tragic and misguided. After all, it seems to me that any prize given for the arts ought to come with its own set of parameters. That’s the beauty of having so many prizes–they each have the capacity to raise up different groups of writers, bringing them notice from a wider circle of readers and rewarding them for their craft. When the boundaries around arts prizes blur, we run the risk of homogenizing literature. By maintaining the boundaries and maintaining the different qualities of various writing prizes, we promote a variety of writers and writing, which always improves understanding of different cultures.

  2. lucypick Post author

    I don’t think American literary writers are inferior in any way. They are less to my taste than Commonwealth writers for reasons that have to do with my own culture and history and background, but that is just a personal preference. I didn’t read the original article as arguing that American literary writing is inferior, but to the extent that it may have, I disagree. (Part of me wonders, however, whether the Man Booker’s plan is to admit American fiction into competition and the resolutely year after year award the prize to non-Americans as a way of making some sort of Point about quality.)
    American literary fiction does, however, tend to suck all other conversation out of the room, through no fault of its authors. That is where your second point, about having many prizes with many criteria to lift up as many good writers as possible is so important.

  3. Bryn Greenwood

    I don’t feel that your post suggests inferiority/superiority, but the original article certainly does. It even uses the phrase “cultural superiority.” All aside, the real crux, uncluttered by literary flag-waving, is the matter homogenization. It really is disappointing to me to look forward to a possible time when American fiction might be highlighted by the Man Booker. As you say, there are already enough prizes that do that. I look to the Man Booker to inform me about Commonwealth fiction that I might otherwise miss out on. *sigh* Please, please, let Franzen be snubbed by the Man Booker committee. 😉

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