It’s the elephant in the corner really, isn’t it? Last week’s announcement of the Booker prize longlist has been one of the main talking points for literary minded souls, and not just in the Commonwealth and Ireland. Delays in the launch of this blog meant that it was hardly worthwhile posting on the longlist – but reading through reactions, one week on, and one point seems to have been much overlooked.
One of the judges for this year’s prize, Alex Clark, in an entertaining and enlightening post on the Prize’s official blog reminds us of the stature of the prize with an anecdote, albeit second hand via a tv documentary, where V.S.Naipaul apparently railed at the lack of coverage his winning the Nobel prize for literature garnered, only to be reminded curtly that it wasn’t as if he’d ‘won the booker’.
It is undoubtedly an important prize, with a strong history and tradition, surrounded by a media malarkey that we’re all happy to play along with (even if the chairman of the Judges this year is Mr true-blue Michael Portillo). The main discussion this year, as in all other years, revolves around who’s on the list and who’s not. But is that the right question?
It is, and it isn’t. Who’s on the list, and who’s not, is obviously central to any prize giving. Who’s eligible to be on the list, though, is the real starting point. The Man Booker is a curious prize, to say the least, given that it’s open solely to writers from the Commonwealth and Ireland, writing in English. Where’s the sense in that? A prize for English language writers – sure. A prize for English language writers from the Commonwealth – a bit parochial, but worthy nonetheless (and the Booker, to give it its due, has helped firmly establish ‘other’ voices on the literary map). A literary prize for English language writers from the Commonwealth, and Ireland – what’s the logic? Because the Irish have great writers? Tell that to the Americans. Because they’re so close by? Tell that to the Danes, the Dutch, and while you’re at it any member of the European community to which Britain belongs.
Mr. Portillo has an interesting and telling way of simplifying the rules – though it’s more, perhaps, an indication of his conservative worldview than a technically correct paraphrasing:
“Books eligible for the Man Booker prize must be written in English, but not by an author from the USA. So Australians, Indians, Irish, Canadians and Caribbean authors, amongst others, are eligible.”
Scan the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, The Irish Times, or countless blogs, and the question is posed as to why Tim Winton or James Kelman didn’t make the list; why the judges have it in for Howard Jacobson or Doris Lessing; never why the prize is so skewed to keep writers out, rather than become a truly landmark prize. The New York Times explains the rules against a merry olde england backdrop of irate cabbies who come to fisticuffs over the shortlist, but never pauses to ask why the Philip Roths of this world are not eligible.
But it would be impossible to take on a task of such gargantuan proportions, were the prize to be opened up to, for example, American writers? Tosh. There are various stratagems to limit the amount of books up for consideration, all of which are already in place and which could be quite easily extended. This year’s judging panel revealed that the choice for the longlist was made from 115 submitted books – that’s for the whole of the commonwealth and Ireland (and Zimbabwe who are sticking in there). Put on limits per capita, take on extra judges, use your imagination.
The International Man Booker prize is, presumably, a small recognition of the problem – but given that it’s a biennial prize to any living writer whose work is widely available in English, it takes on the character of the Life time achievement award at the Oscars, a recognition of graft more than knock-em dead performance.
The booker has done fantastic work in the past in bringing new and exciting voices into the generally accepted canon. Why in this day and age doesn’t it have the surefootedness to relax its colonial borders and allow novels to compete for a worthy annual prize. Then it would be worthwhile getting worked up about who is and isn’t on the list. Then, maybe, Salman Rushdie might have an actual competition on his hands when the next ‘booker of bookers’ comes along.
And for the record – why didn’t Tim Winton make it onto the judges longlist??
This year’s Longlist is:
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Gaynor Arnold, Girl in a Blue Dress (Tindal Street Press)
Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
John Berger, From A to X (Verso)
Michelle de Kretser, The Lost Dog (Chatto & Windus)
Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Jonathan Cape)
Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (Fourth Estate)
Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence (Jonathan Cape)
Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 (Simon & Schuster)
Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)
Why doesn’t the Pulitzer open up to non-US writers? At present, writers publishing works in English are not eligible for that award, so it makes sense not to open up the Booker until the Pulitzer is opened up too. Meanwhile the National Book Award is only open to works published in the US and the American book market buys depressingly little foreign fiction, especially from India and Africa.
To clarify, that should read:
‘At present, writers publishing works in English who are not US citizens’
A reasonable point, but the Pulitzer is a national prize without pretensions, while the Booker is an international prize with curious criteria for eligibility.