The Man Booker Prize: US authors to be considered?

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?


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34 responses to “The Man Booker Prize: US authors to be considered?

  1. It does seem like a natural extension for the Booker Prize, particularly when national boundaries for the arts aren’t quite as significant in an Internet age. That said, I agree that the Booker Prize may lose what makes it distinctive.


    • Yes, the more I think about it, the more it seems that it was only a matter of time before the nationality issue had to be fully addressed even though the rule changes seem to have come as a shock to many. The emphasis on diversity this year hopefully means that the Booker will continue to offer something different each year.


  2. It would be great to imagine that it meant we got to see and hear about the kind of books that don’t always get much mainstream publicity, rather than as many are suggesting that it’ll attract all the big hitters and we’ll lose that current ability of the prize to unearth the quiet gems. I remain optimistic though, that it will inspire a much better list and for readers it the longlist that is really interesting, because with a new judging panel every year, the winner is merely the subjective view of the judges of that year anyway. I always find more richness in the lists than the winners.

    We will see, but I agree that nationality is becoming a bit of a misnomer.


  3. I think (hope?) that the Booker has enough of a sense of its history and original audience to stay that little bit quirky.

    I was discussing this today, the difference between US writing being a bit more professional and polished and well taught. While Brits are a bit more OK with being different.

    I was also discussing US TV shows and the very high quality of the best ones. The way I see it, we mainly see Brit shows in Brit TV. But there’s room for US shows too and we enjoy them equally well, and diversity is healthy because it bestows us with new ideas. So I envisage it with the Booker.


  4. I can see the point about the current blurring of lines. I was surprised to see Lahiri in the list, for example, given that she has won the Pulitzer. But I have to say that my first response was that this was the Booker reacting to the forthcoming Folio Prize and taken all in all I think I’m against it.


  5. Thanks for a balanced article. I think the Booker should remain ‘as is’. Prizes need to reflect a particular standpoint. There are currently plenty of awards available to American writers. I often disagree with, or am baffled by, the Booker Judges’ choices, but they certainly do highlight unusual, obscure, small novels, and this is a good thing.


  6. It’ll only increase the quality of the books nominated by making competition stronger. And hopefully it will make people aware American books that may have gone unheard of in Europe.


  7. pos comm

    Reblogged this on Michele Theron.


  8. Just give me all the awards then no one would have to worry about the politics of it! Problem solve, you’re welcome. 😉


  9. I think there are enough prizes for American writers. Why does the Man Booker prize need to be available to them as well?


  10. An interesting quandary. At first I thought that would be cool for US authors. However, after reading more of your article, maybe we don’t need all awards available for everyone. That would just make a long list of variations of the same award. There are plenty of awards that US writers qualify for without opening up The Man Booker prize.


  11. I think those who award the prize have the right to define its scope and criteria. You are right that many other prizes recognize US authors and that a prize that introduces us to new voices might be good. That said, I hardly ever read the prize winners, unless they are still around ten years later. The staying power of a work is more significant to me than its cache’ in the present moment. Great to come across your blog!


  12. Yes I think it is quite alright for the prize to remain only for commonwealth countries Ireland and Zimbabwe writers. I think the prize would lose its distinction if it is open for everyone. It would not be a practical situation for the judging panel either.


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  14. I’m not sure it will make a difference. For years the Booker has been dominated by post-colonial writers, and certain British writers and critics have been harping on forever about the number of “foreigners” who appear every year on the list. Opening it to everyone increases the field, obviously, but it hardly matters at this point, or at least it wouldn’t if opening it up meant that genuine talent is considered. Literary prizes are a bit of a joke anyway; for the most part they’re marketing gimmicks by the publishing industry (which in these end-times of publishing isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Winning the Booker means an increase in sales. But so does winning the PEN and the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. And the IMPAC award. Which is the award an author wants to win? Any of them? There’s a certain cache to the Booker; it’s the gold-standard of literary awards (at least within the UK, Ireland and the former Empire). But it’s hardly ever picked an author from a small press. It’s always Picador or Hamish Hamilton or Chatto & Windus or Secker & Warburg or whatever. There’s no reason to suppose that just because the field is bigger that it won’t still be dominated by big-name authors from big-name publishing houses.


  15. I suppose the changes are mainly for political reasons and not to address the nationality fluidity issues. Because politics seems to be behind everything. What I want is a list I can go to and find something that is not by some formulaic big box American author. That’s not too much to ask, right?


  16. Seems to me just another way of giving big publishers all the money and prizes, and nothing to do with a specific culture, or enhancing literature written in English. How about encouraging younger, less well-known, English writers for a change?

    Just because Jhumpa Lahiri has been shortlisted doesn’t mean shortlisting her was a good idea, or that shortlisting other writers in English from the US is a good idea. It’s a spurious argument like “You let my friend into the disco, so why won’t you let me in?”

    Homogenising English literature in this way will only diminish it. Writers have always travelled and ofen lived in other countries for many years. That doesn’t make foreigners capable of writing in the language of the country they live in automatically eligible for national prizes. Prizes intended for that are called international prizes.

    They don’t allow foreigner soccer players who play for the clubs of other nations play for the national team of those countries, and neither could I become President of the US no matter how long I lived there. But I could still become PM of the UK even though I have lived in Spain for quite some time..

    You might as well have French fluent writer in Mandarin living in Brazil eligible for a Chinese prize in literature.

    As George Bernard Shaw once said: “England and America are two countries divided by a common language”. And long may it be so.


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  18. As an American and an author, I find this to be an incredibly interesting article and discussion. I’ve always believed that literature was and is the place where readers discover new cultures and viewpoints. As an American, and like most Americans, I never considered a separation between the two countries (political structures aside) – your history is our history in so many ways and who doesn’t love Boru Vodka!. That being said, I think UK authors should have their own award if for no other reason than to promote and protect the unique writing identity of their nation. Although, such awards tend to go to the usual suspects and to truly embrace new and innovative, they should not discard the works of UK self-published authors. However, opening the ranks will extend awareness and help UK authors to be discovered here in the states…US consumer dollars did wonders for Ms Rowling…so there is that.


  19. So happy I discovered this! I love books and reading about other people who love books! 🙂


  20. Bookstops

    It was interesting to know Julian Barnes’s opinion. It certainly took him quite some effort (and quite some books) to earn his Man Booker Prize with his brilliant novel “The Sense of an Ending”.

    Also, we have just posted another bookstore review at Bookstops, so come check it out if you want to.


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  22. Pingback: The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2014 | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

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