Tuesday, October 14, 2014

American Novels in the Man Booker Prize

In the past few days there have been a couple of articles on ‘The Guardian’ website about the decision to open up the Man Booker Prize to American novels. Susanna Rustin wrote that, while she loves American novels, she was worried that including them in Booker contention might take attention away from good Commonwealth writing. Australian novelist Peter Carey outright disagreed with the decision, saying that the ‘particular cultural flavour’ of the award will now be lost.

If the aim of the Booker Prize is to reward the ‘best’ novel in English then it must include American authors. But I think what most opponents to the inclusion of American authors are saying is that should not be the aim of the Booker. I agree – there was a nice symmetry in the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and National Book Award for Fiction) rewarding US authors, while novels from other countries competed for the Booker. Now Commonwealth novels have less chance of winning a major prize.

How much less chance? I had a look over the Booker and Pulitzer winners since 2000 to see which American novels might have taken the Booker home. Given the outpouring of critical adoration for Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ (2005 Pulitzer winner) and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ (2007 winner), I would have been surprised if either of those had not won the Booker if eligible. Other American novels that I think would have had decent chances are ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’, ‘Middlesex’, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’, ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’, and the-novel-that-probably-many-people-think-won-the-Pulitzer ‘The Corrections’.

Without working out how those novels would have lined up with eligibility dates (the novel that came up against ‘Life of Pi’ would have had a tough contest), there seems to me a good chance that about four or five US novels might have won the Booker over the past fifteen years if eligible. Actually I think that could well reflect roughly how the shares work out going forward – one-third US winners, one-third UK/Ireland winners, and one-third from everywhere else. So if that occurred, about one-third of potential Commonwealth winners would miss out, which is not drastic. On the other hand, those that miss out are probably those that would benefit most from the prize – the consequences of, say, ‘Wolf Hall’ having missed out on the Booker might be less than for other novels.

Overall then I think Peter Carey is right – something unique has been lost. Which is not to say that the US novels that get up would not be worthy winners; I personally loved one of this year’s contenders, Joshua Ferris’ ‘To Rise Again At A Decent Hour’. It is just a bit of a needless change really, even if Australians would crow a bit more if Peter Carey or Tim Winton ‘toppled the Yanks’.

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