The Man Booker Prize was opened up to all novels written in English for the first time this year. It also opened a can of worms. Journalists began to write as if it were meaningful to refer to national fiction. They warned us that British fiction is not what it used to be. It was suggested that our national honour, or something, is impugned by the American prizewinners. You would have been forgiven for thinking that British fiction is in danger of being taken over, swept aside, overwhelmed. The Yanks are coming!.
Did the Yanks come?
In the event, the new rules for the Man Booker Prize meant that two Americans got to the shortlist of six: Karen Joy Fowler with We are all Completely Beside Ourselves; and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. The announcement of the shortlist allowed journalists to reassure us about the issue they had raised. Warnings of an American wipeout had been exaggerated. The winner was an Australian, Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Sarah Churchwell was on the panel of judges for the Prize. She made this comment in the Guardian Review, following the announcement of the winner this week:
The Booker Prize has already had more than its share of controversy this year: first over changing the rules to allow any author writing in English to enter, a phrase that has been widely interpreted to mean “Americans”. As an American myself, I don’t find the prospect of Americans joining things especially horrifying. I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passports an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.
More MB Prize controversies
- whether the judges skim read the 156 submitted novels – Sarah Churchwell says they don’t!
- the role of the judges to correct the institutional sexism of the publishing industry and of reviewers – is sexism revealed by longlisting only three out of 13 writers (although 2 of the six shortlisted)?
Other Literary Prizes
The revised rules set off journalists’ concerns about other prizes as well. In March George Saunders won the new Folio Prize. Jane Gardam was the only British writer who made the shortlist.
- Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)
- Schroder by Amity Gaige (America)
- Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)
- Benediction by Kent Haruf (America)
- The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (America)
- A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland)
- A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (America)
- Tenth of December by George Saunders (America)
And what about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction? A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, from Ireland, was also shortlisted for this prize, and it won. It’s a very good book. The others came from a reassuringly wide range of female writers:
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
- Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia)
- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (India-America)
- The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Ireland)
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (America)
Crisis, what crisis?
AS Byatt was quoted in the fuss about standards in national literature: she was a judge for the Folio Prize and a previous Man Booker Prize Winner herself (Possession), in short a grande dame of British literature. The sub injected urgency into the headline:
IS BRITISH FICTION IN CRISIS? AS Byatt bemoaned the lack of exciting UK authors being published today.
A little further down this piece we were given more detail. The American books, she told us, were ‘inventive and beautifully written. I don’t have the feeling of that kind of energy any more.’ The implication is that the energy is lacking in UK fiction.
Actually AS Byatt is making a point about publishers, and how in the UK publishers are more interested in making money than promoting literature. Who gets published? Who nominates novels for prizes? It’s the publishers. Publishers take note of prizes so they can be very important in a writer’s career. We should note that independent publishers are doing a great deal to promote high quality fiction in the UK.
We might add that one reason for any domination by US writers over British ones in the merry-go-round of prize winning is quite simply down to one fact: there are many more of them. Britain is a tiny country within the English-writing world.
So in conclusion the winners are …
Why should readers care about the nationality of the writer of prizes? We don’t! I’m with Sarah Churchwell, the nationality of the author is irrelevant. Prizes matter to publishers because they make money, and to writers, because the publicity means that more people will buy and read their novels. Readers like me, like prizes because they tell us who the industry, the small world of publishing believe are the best writers. I want to get knowledge about and access to good quality fiction. Prizes help, but they are not the whole story.
Do you have any views on the state of British fiction, or nationality in fiction writing? Or literary prizes?
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