Why the Man Booker Should Remain Open to American Authors

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Sam Burt

Staff Writer

Sam is a tutor and copywriter living in east London. He divides his time between trying to get kids to do what they’re told, and doing the same with words. A book a week keeps him happy and (fairly) sane. Working towards a career in publishing (and That Novel) also helps. He writes for the Guardian, Huffington Post and OpenDemocracy, and recently won 2nd prize in a Writer's Magazine story contest.

The Man Booker Prize has a history of stirring up the literary scene. Last month it made headlines again when 30 publishers urged trustees to reverse their decision to include American authors.

The letter cites falling sales in the U.S. by writers from the UK and the Commonwealth, and points out that the last two winners were American authors. Should these trends continue, it warns us of a ‘a homogenised literary future’, with writers outside the U.S. struggling to crack the market.

These risks exist. Yet I defend the decision to open up the Booker.

Much has been written of the plight of ‘midlist’ authors. Well, I consider myself a ‘midlist’ reader—in the sense that I shun bestsellers but am also too busy/poor to take a punt on debut authors. As a result, I spend a lot of time reading books by long-dead or outdated authors.

I’m not alone in this. We midlist readers are well-read but not so well-connected. We’d like to keep one foot in the pool of contemporary literary fiction while investing a minimum of time and money. And while there are other means available, the Man Booker Prize shortlist remains one of the best ways of doing this.

For the last two years, I’ve read the six shortlisted titles. In 2016 I read about China’s turbulent twentieth-century, a murder trial in Victorian Scotland, and ‘post-racism’ in Obama’s America. A year later, I was taken on a journey from war-torn Syria to a Greek refugee camp, before plunging into an anti-Vietnam War sit-in.

Granted, the shortlist’s cultural diversity has dipped somewhat in the last two years. But here are several points to consider before we rush to bemoan the ‘Americanisation’ of the Booker.

It’s too early to tell.

Two years isn’t an adequate sample. There have been stand-out years for shortlist diversity (2013, for instance) but many more that weren’t dissimilar to last year’s.

we can and should look beyond authors’ countries of origin in assessing a shortlist’s pluralism.

It’s also true that new and unfamiliar voices may arise in old, familiar settings. Ali Smith’s Autumn, for example, has—for anyone living in the UK—an all-too-familiar preoccupation with the onward crawl of Brexit. Yet it contains voices and perspectives that I hadn’t encountered before. Global interconnectedness and social media in-grouping have combined to narrow our perspectives, regardless of national borders.

The Booker needs to entice sponsors and retain its prestige.

The Booker has to keep pace with disruptive changes occurring in the publishing industry itself. Homogenisation in mainstream publishing is an uncomfortable fact. As Alex Shephard writes in the New Republic, publishing on both sides of the Atlantic is now dominated by Penguin Random House and big conglomerates. They dominate the Prize because they submit more titles.

But it seems late in the day to be using literary awards to correct for a lack of diversity upstream. The aim of the Prize is “to increase the reading of quality fiction and to attract ‘the intelligent general audience’.” Speaking as one of its time-poor members, this intelligent general audience would prefer not to have to shop around for quality literary fiction from the U.S. in addition to digesting the Booker shortlist.

Fears that the Booker will lose its identity or become a Nobel-lite seem overblown. Its longlist/shortlist format and reputable, accessible judges remain safeguards against vacuity and obscurity.

Ultimately, it cannot be credible for the Booker to exclude U.S. authors given the importance—cultural and commercial—of the U.S. market. Opening up the Prize presents risks to its celebrated diversity of voices. But these need to be addressed by encouraging big publishers to take more risks with their output and submissions, and by selecting judges who will be receptive to lesser-heard voices.

With vigilance and one eye on reform, openness should be welcomed, not feared.