The Man Booker Prize is certainly no stranger to controversy. However, reports that American writers will be eligible from next year onwards have managed to provoke even more debate than normal with many arguing that the Prize will lose its “distinctiveness”. There has been no official comment from the Booker committee yet but changes are set to be announced later this week.
Considering the emphasis on the diversity of this year’s shortlist, the extension of the criteria could be interpreted as a natural progression for the Booker Prize. Moreover, the definition of nationality has become increasingly fluid. Born in London to Indian parents, Jhumpa Lahiri has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize but considers herself an American saying “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been”. Three of the other shortlisted authors also live and work in the United States. If the Prize is already open to those who hold dual citizenship, then it perhaps makes sense to allow all authors writing in the English language to be considered. On the other hand, there is no sign of US prizes being opened up to writers of other nationalities, creating something of an imbalance in the increasingly global literary world. There is no guarantee that future shortlists will indeed be dominated by American authors as some commentators fear. Each year will always be different. However, I think the changes are likely to have a substantial impact on the Prize. This year’s judges had the enormous task of reading 151 books in less than six months before deciding on the longlist. I don’t think it can reasonably be expected for that number to be increased much more which means that some British, Irish and Commonwealth writers may well be sidelined if authors of other nationalities are considered. Overall, I agree with Jim Crace’s views on the issue. He was quoted as saying “In principle, I should believe in all prizes being open to everyone. But I think prizes need to have their own characters, and sometimes those characters are defined by their limitations.” For example, The Women’s Prize for Fiction has played a part in redressing the gender balance in the male-dominated literary world. Awards for début novelists are important too and they also guarantee something different every year. Distinguishing features amongst different awards can help draw attention to those authors who might otherwise miss out on recognition for the prizes with broader criteria. If these changes do go ahead, then the criteria for the Man Booker Prize would be more or less the same as the forthcoming Folio Prize which will be open to any work of fiction published in the English language. It has been suggested that the Booker’s eligibility extension has been prompted by the launch of this award (the notion of rivalry between the Booker and the Folio seems rather petty to me, but there you go). On the other hand, it will be interesting to see if any novels are nominated for both of these awards which will be decided by different sets of judges. What do you think? Should the criteria of the Booker Prize be extended? What makes a literary award distinctive? Does the nationality of an author matter? Are book awards a waste of time?