Just over a week ago in London, after the Man Booker Prize committee announced that it would be expanding globally to include “novels originally written in English and published in the U.K., regardless of the nationality of the author,” you could hear the British publishing industry howling from Brighton to Belfast.
“Well that’s the end of the Booker,” huffed The Guardian’s book blog.
Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg likened the move to “a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate.” Or as one literary journalist remarked to me of the rumours at the short-list party earlier this month, “It’s an utterly daft idea – the distinctiveness will be gone.”
As we feted a 2013 short list hailed as “the most diverse in recent memory,” one that included writers with roots in five continents, including two Canadian (albeit expat) writers, the notion that the Booker was about to become narrower in its selections seemed wholly counterintuitive – yet that’s exactly what this announcement will mean.
So how can “global expansion” mean less literary diversity for the world’s most influential English-language literary prize? This question can be answered in two words: Jonathan Franzen. By which I mean that American literature, in all its mighty cultural force, is about to swim up like Moby-Dick and swallow the Booker Prize whole.
The Brits, to their credit, are angry about it. Philip Hensher, an English novelist and former Booker judge, took it upon himself to declare in print the harsh truth that the American novel is now almost certain to dominate the list. “Not through excellence, necessarily,” he added, “but simply through an economic superpower exerting its own literary tastes, just as the British empire imposed the idea that Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived through the 19th-century colonies.”
For Canadians, this argument will ring especially true. If any culture has shivered in the long shadow cast by the U.S. cultural marketplace, it has been ours.
Yet from the Canadian publishing world there has been nary a peep of protest about this new state of affairs. Not a single Canadian novelist, agent or publisher has come forward to publicly complain about the effect of watering down a prize that has had an enormous hand in bringing relatively obscure Canadian literary fiction writers to the global stage.
Perhaps we are simply too polite? Or maybe we’re loathto be proprietary about a prize we didn’t found in the first place?
Whatever the reason, it’s outrageous.
Champions of Canadian fiction should be shouting in the street because – and I say this as a realist, not as a cultural defeatist – as of 2014, we can pretty much kiss our presence on the Man Booker Prize short list goodbye.
Think about it. In the past four years, of the several dozen of books from around the world that made the Booker long list, seven were by Canadians. A very respectable five of those made it onto the short list. But would the then-relatively-obscure likes of Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyan, Emma Donoghue, Eleanor Catton and Ruth Ozeki really have a chance if put up against the monolithic cultural influence of the likes of Donna Tartt, Marilynne Robinson or Jonathan Franzen?
I’m not saying Canadians can’t compete sentence for sentence – qualitatively speaking, we absolutely can – but in terms of sheer cultural glitter and influence, we’re hopelessly outnumbered, and as a result, outclassed.
This is also true of other Commonwealth or English-speaking countries such as Ireland, Nigeria or Australia, all of which have claimed the Booker as their own – but it’s worse news for Canada. And why? Because for years Booker judging panels have tacitly looked upon Canadian inclusions on the short list as the prize’s “American” influence (they do, I’m sorry to say, consider us all more or less the same).
Now the competition for that transatlantic presence will be much, much stiffer. It will be Lorrie Moore against Lisa Moore – not entirely a fair fight, when you take into account the avalanche of media noise and institutional money propelling one and not the other.
And make no mistake: Increased glitter and transatlantic cultural hype is exactly what the Booker Prize committee is hoping to generate here.
Their announcement comes just prior to the official launch of the Folio Prize, a new British-based international literary award that had hoped to distinguish itself by being open to all English-language submissions.
While the Booker people strenuously denied their decision had anything to do with sponsorship pressure to compete with the Folio (a prize founded on the perceived grounds that the Booker had become overly commercial and focused on the “readability” of its short list), the timing is coincidental, to say the least.
Last week, Andrew Kidd, founder of the Folio Prize, issued a hilariously sniffy statement on the matter.
“Our intention was to fill a perceived gap, rather than to imply that others should adopt our model,” he wrote – though he might have just shouted “Copycats!” and been done with it.
Either way, it’s terrible news for Canada.
Our literature, more than any other country’s, has long had to strive against the dominance of U.S. cultural imperialism – but at least we had a fair crack at the Booker.
And now we don’t even have that.