Monday, September 23, 2013

The Booker Prize Opens to Americans

I was very disappointed to hear the news last week that the Man Booker Prize would open to American books and writers. On the one hand, as proponents of the move have said, half of this year's nominees live in the United States, plenty of books nominated in the past have been set here and there are lots of dual-citizen types who enjoy the benefits of being associated both sides of the Atlantic, so in effect, it already is open to Americans.

I like that the Booker has been a British award. I like that the award recognizes- and publicizes- a lot of books and writers who don't otherwise get a lot of play here. Howard Jacobson, for example, was a writer of whom I had never heard before his novel was nominated for, and ultimately won, the prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question. That book wasn't even scheduled to be published here until it reached the short list. I love that the Booker brings over books like his, because sometimes I forget just how much good stuff never gets here at all.  As a reader, I love having a window into contemporary British literature and world literature- the Booker includes the entire Commonwealth after all, even though in practice its nominees tend to come from about six or seven of them.

Over the years I've found a lot of my favorite novels thanks to the Booker Prize. I would never have picked up The English Patient years before it was a movie, or Disgrace, or The Sisters Brothers (a nominee), whereas hearing about well-regarded American books is easy thanks to resources like the Indie Next list and reviews.  I definitely will look twice at a book that has been nominated, and I have made it a life project to read all the winners. I think what attracts me to the books bearing the prize's imprimatur is this idea that the prize represents a very high caliber of literary fiction from outside my own cultural milieu, that I have to leave the comfortable confines of American literature and travel to another part of the world, listen to another voice besides the ones I hear every day. As much as it's culturally diverse, the award is also culturally distinct, and it's not my culture either, and I love that.

So I worry about the impact of this change. Maybe the award will become more exciting, but unless the committee will be reading works by smaller American presses I don't see how that is going to happen. I wonder if quiet books like Offshore or The Story of Michael K. would get noticed amongst the more hyped American heavyweights. I worry that quirky books will be binned for the same kinds of books that currently win our big book awards. And since I mentioned it, it's not like U.S. authors don't have their own very prestigious prizes, like the Pulitzer or National Book Award- and the Man Booker International, whose most recent winner was American Lydia Davis.

Speaking of those other awards, the National Book Award longlist was announced the other day, and it was noted that there was not one book on the list from a small press. And it struck me that the books on its list look a lot like the kinds of American books Man Booker might recognize, too. Maybe, if my conjecture is accurate, other awards, like the National Book Award to pick one example, could make it its mission to focus on small presses. Sort of pass the recognition, and thus the boost in sales, around a little?

So, I can't come up with anything more specific that's wrong exactly, but it just doesn't sit right with me either.  It just leaves me shaking my head and hoping that it doesn't become a bland, overbroad award that carries less punch and pushes aside lesser known voices in favor of those that get plenty of attention already.

What do you think? Is the Booker one you watch, or do you not get into awards? What do you think about awards recognizing mainstream versus small press books? Do the best books get picked anyway? Does it matter, or is it just a bunch of New York eggheads posturing and much ado about nothing?


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I agree with you; I don't like the change. I like taking a look at the Bookers to find books I don't see here in America. Now it will just be the same old, same old.

Unknown said...

This is the first I'm heaing about this change to the Man Booker prize and I don't like it. One of the things that drew me to pay attention to the Booker was that it was British and often listed books I wasn't familiar with and probably wouldn't know of or read otherwise. I think there are plenty of awards that recognize and honor American authors anyway. I hope books aren't overlooked for this reason but it's hard to imagine they won't be. As for the National Book Award - I was surprised at how many of the books I was already familiar with. Then I realized they were all from major publishers with nothing from a small press which surprised and saddened me.

Andi said...

I was bummed about the change as well. I don't want to see all the same books represented across varying literary awards.

Ryan said...

I try to read a few of the nominees each year before the award is presented. The Booker and the Giller Prize are really the only two awards that I pay attention to. On the subject of the inclusion of american novelists, I'm of two minds. On the one hand, this makes the Booker the pre-eminent award for literature, worldwide (in my mind) and that is a good thing, i suppose. But on the other hand, I worry that American writers will dominate the nominees in the coming years, shutting out promising novelists from around the world.

I suppose only time will tell.