Booker's War Of Undependence

on Wednesday, September 18, 2013
It's like the War of Independence never happened!

At some point between me jumping on a plane in Melbourne and surfacing two days later from a jet lagged haze in Detroit, word had begun to get out that, as of next year, the Booker Prize would be welcoming entries from American authors. I have yet to see an official announcement, but BookNerd Universe is going nuts over the whole caper. Is it a brilliant move of Machiavellian literary colonialism or the desperate gasp of a prize fearing for its very identity? After all, Booker's long standing position as the "literary person's literary prize" took a serious beating after Rimingtongate and now stands to lose the mantle (or is that Mantel?) to the spanking new Folio Prize. I thought they'd answered their critics well with the announcement of an extraordinarily solid, if somewhat predictable, shortlist last week but they still seems to be bobbing up and down in the water, waving their hands in panic.

Opinions are strongly divided. On one hand there are those who welcome the move. It could, if Team Booker play their cards right, make the prize the undisputed top accolade for novels written in the English language. American fiction isn't quite the powerhouse it once was, so the playing field is fairly level. I, for one, am intrigued to see what would make a "Best of English Language" shortlist. I mean, think about it. Geographical borders seem silly these days. Two of the shortlisted writers for this year's Booker call America home. Isn't it high time we broke down the artifice?

On the other hand, there's something charming about a Commonwealth writing prize (as opposed to the Commonwealth writing prizes). America has annoyingly insular prizes coming out of the wazoo (The Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc) so why shouldn't the rest of the English speaking world keep one for themselves? This is like those stupid free trade agreements where only one side believes in free trade. The Booker ought to be literature's tariff! Furthermore, there's something je ne sais quoi about the Booker's current character that would be diluted with the introduction of American literature. Or, rather, there is something particular about American lit that I'm quite glad not to see in the Booker mix. Call it naval gazing self-consciousness, muscular self-assuredness or whatever; it's seldom found in the kind of works that get a Booker nod and I'm quite happy for it to stay that way. Oh, and isn't there already a Man Booker International Prize? Granted it is more like the Nobel, aimed at recognising the entire body of an author's work (especially those that seem to be ignored by the Swedish Academy) but still, wasn't that free-trade enough for the haters?

I'm sure this will continue to play out over the coming months (or years if it actually happens), but for now let's keep our eyes on the prize. Literally. Call me a cynic, but the timing could not have been worse. We have six books we should be talking about right now. Let's not take the limelight away from them.

Note: Less than an hour after I posted this, Booker made it official. See the full statement here


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