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The Man Booker Prize and those Damn Americans

The Man Booker prize has opened its doors to all English books published in the UK, which means American books are now eligible. I don’t know if this is a good idea or a bad idea. I suspect it is a less than good, though I don’t know why I say that. In any case, it has been interesting listening to and reading about the British response to the decision.

It was, of course, discussed on BBC Radio Four and to guarantee balance an American and a Brit were interviewed. The British representative implied that American authors were machine-like, and by inference that British authors are organic-like. Be that as it may, most American authors are doing their best to do their best to get by, and many are doing better than just getting by. I would suggest the British representative should read, for example, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. No machine rendered narrative there. Her clear implication was that America novels are by and large crap while British novels are oozing with integrity and wonder, that the inclusion of American authors will degrade the Booker prize and, for reasons not articulated, push British authors aside. 

In The Guardian Review on September 21, 2013 Philip Hensher sees only disaster in the Booker prize committee’s decision. Again, he may be right, but I found his argument even more interesting than that of radio interview. He writes

When eligibility shifts from the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe to English-language novels published in the UK, it is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes… 

I am in no doubt that America spreads its cultural tastes, or some might say imperialism, throughout the world. The film industry is a good example. I heard it said time and time again that American movies are basically crap and British movies are basically wonderful. Hollywood represents all that is bad in film, which is why it is particularly galling that British movie theatres show American movies and British people pay money to go see them. As the theatres are filled with American films with only a few British efforts on offer, so it is feared the Booker long and short list, and eventual winners, will be dominated by American authors pushing British writers aside.

There is a slight difference, however, between the success of American films in Britain and the apparent inevitability that American authors will dominate the Booker prize beginning next year (Hensher says: “It will be a brave Booker panel in 2014 that doesn't give the prize to an American novel…”). The dominance of American film is in part due to theatres showing the films and people buying the tickets to watch them. However, the Booker prize long and short lists and the prize winner are not decided by popular vote. They are decided by a panel appointed by the Booker itself. Reading Hensher I got the feeling that the panel would be surrounded by American marines in full combat gear weapons loaded demanding American authors dominate and of course win. Things are so bad because of this decision that Hensher reports that many British authors are thinking they might as well quite writing all together. The Yanks are coming! 

The Booker prize has always prided itself, and publicized itself, as the prize for literary excellence. When one panel said it was looking for “readable” books that were “popular” and were “pager turners” there was an outcry. The following year’s panel assured everyone that that populist blip was just that, a blip. Yes, it is true the Booker can only consider books that are submitted by publishers. As Hensher says: “Of course, prize committees are at the mercy of what is submitted, and the Booker specifically at the mercy of what London publishers think will sell in London.” While true, and here I may be accused of naiveté or ignorance (or both), I’m not sure how this fact leads to American dominance. The Booker has had no problem for 45 years in finding excellent, and sometimes not so excellent, books in the UK, the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe to be short-list. As far as I know no panel has ever refused to declare a winner saying no book was found to be worthy. If the next Booker prize panel choses an American novel as the winner, and if that choice indicates American cultural imperialism, then the panel only has itself to blame.

Now, it may be that the Man Booker prize committee has made a terrible mistake. It may lead to a dilution of the merits and integrity of the prize itself; Hensher makes a good argument about how this decision will do just that, citing, for example, the difference it makes when the judges can no longer read the full list of submissions but must have pre-reading panels and split the books up among the panel members. But some of the initial responses to the decision seem like good old fashion American bias. There are a lot of horrible American novels out there, as there are British ones. And there are a lot of wonderful American novels as there are UK, the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe novels.

Copyright © 2013 Dale Rominger

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