An Open Booker

The organizers of the Man Booker prize announced this week that Americans will be eligible to win the prize starting next year. M.A. Orthofer applauds the Booker’s inclusiveness, but Radhika Jones protests:

[U]ltimately, the American inclusion would mean that the Man Booker is voluntarily ending its status as an arbiter of English literature—a canon with a longer and decidedly different cultural and political history than American lit, which the Booker itself played a role in transforming. Considering how quickly the Booker earned that arbiter status, it seems to me a pity to give up the prospect of continuing it.

Tim Parks is also opposed:

[T]he Man Booker Prize is simply following a trend which tends to weaken ties between writers and their national communities. … [Considering American novels] would reinforce the illusion that Britain and the US share a common culture. Above all it would contribute to a growing feeling that the author is an international entertainer rather than an artist involved in a home community with a literary tradition. In fact the rise of the international award goes hand in hand with the decline of the novel as a serious influence in national debate, or a medium where the native language might be mined and renewed. To top it all, the Americans, basking in a global power that confers cultural self-sufficiency, would be underwhelmed. No American author will prefer the Booker to the Pulitzer.

Leo Robson finds the hand-wringing unncessary:

Certainly the prospect, for a British writer, of a whole new category of competition, whatever the nationality, will not be welcome. But to imagine that Booker juries will be engulfed by a wave of American genius is to exhibit an odd inversion of Cultural Cringe, whereby the former empire becomes falsely convinced that, compared with those of a successful former colony, its own achievements are piffling, irrelevant, and drab.

Robert McCrum approves of the decision and puts it in context:

[I]n the evolution of English-language culture in the contemporary world, this is a small but significant milestone, a recognition that you cannot lay claim to being “most important literary award in the English-speaking world” and exclude the American literary tradition. …

Here’s the bottom line. Booker is a longstanding literary trophy. But no amount of longevity can disguise its essential character: it’s a lottery; a sweepstake. It has only a coincidental and fortuitous relationship with literary excellence. As Julian Barnes put it (in a phrase that’s almost obligatory to quote in these discussions), Booker and the other prizes are simply “posh bingo”.