American Booker takeover has British in a flap
Britain’s biggest literary prize has announced that from next year, US authors will be allowed to enter too. Are British books doomed in the face of the Great American Novel?
‘Well, we might as well just give up then.’ That is what British novelists are saying this week, according to literary critic Philip Hensher. Why so gloomy? Because the top British literary prize has just announced it will open itself up to the Americans.
The Man Booker Prize was set up in 1968 to recognise the best novel each year written in English by a citizen of the UK or the British Commonwealth – a group of countries that used to be part of the British Empire. Americans, not being members of the Commonwealth, were excluded.
‘Just as well!’ many critics thought. The second half of the 20th century saw the USA produce an extraordinary crop of brilliant novelists: John Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and many more. ‘Let Philip Roth enter’, people used to say, ‘and no one would ever beat him!’
Things were not always that way. The novelist Henry James, born in New York in 1843, made a mournful list of things that his country lacked: aristocracy, clergy, army, country gentlemen, palaces, castles, thatched cottages, cathedrals, little Norman churches. Worst of all: ‘no literature; no novels’. America, he thought, was missing some vital ingredients for the production of great literary art.
But by the time the Booker Prize was founded, the situation was reversed. It was Britain that had something missing: its old empire. The UK was poor and fading. The US had all the money and all the power. No one was surprised that it had all the great novelists too. At least the Booker Prize, by leaving the Americans out, continued to showcase top British and Commonwealth talent.
That is, until now. With Americans invading the Booker prize, the days of British winners could be numbered. David Brauner, an expert in American fiction, compared top British and US novels over the last thirteen years. In all that time, he said, he could only spot one British novel that would have beaten the US competition in a head to head fight: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
What will happen now that the Booker is open to all? There are at least four schools of thought. Some critics think the Americans will continue their dominance of the art. America is still the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth. US novels reflect that.
Others think the British will hold their own. Britain’s writers, they point out, can tap into the country’s rich and storied past.
A third group think Commonwealth writers are the future: new exciting voices emerging from vibrant, dynamic countries in Africa and Asia.
Finally, there are those who despair at all this novelistic nationalism. True art, they say, knows no borders at all.
- Which novel would you rather read: the winner of the Booker Prize, or the top international bestseller?
- Which region do you think will produce most great English-language novels in the next twenty years: the USA, the UK or the Commonwealth?
- If you were entering a novel for the Booker Prize, what would you write about? Write the title and subject of your novel on a piece of paper, then when everyone is done, share with the class. What sort of subject was the most popular?
- What makes a novel great? Make a short list of the qualities you think a prizewinning novel should have.
Some People Say...
“There are too many novels in the world already. We should stop encouraging people to write more!”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why is everyone in such a flap about this prize?
- The Booker Prize is big business. The novel that wins the award always goes on to be a bestseller. For a writer, winning the Booker can make your career. One of the worries now is that British and Commonwealth writers will be deprived of their best opportunity to make it big.
- I want to be a writer. This sounds like bad news for me!
- It probably will make things harder for writers trying to establish themselves. For writers just starting out though, there are lots of awards specially for young people that are well worth entering. If you win it is a great start to a writing career, and if you don’t, it is still great practice. On the other hand, as the poet Charles Bukowski said: ‘If you’re doing it for money or fame... don’t do it.’
- Man Booker Prize
- Like most other artistic prizes, the Booker Prize is named after its sponsor or sponsors. It was set up by a company called Booker-McConnell in the Sixties, but today the £50,000 prize money for each winner is provided by the Man Group, whose name has been added to the prize’s official title.
- British Commonwealth
- The Commonwealth of Nations is an association of 54 countries linked by their connection to the former British Empire. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Commonwealth, but she has no formal power over its members. The USA is not a member, having fought a successful war of independence against the UK back in the 1780s.
- Henry James
- The great novelist Henry James was born and raised in the USA but spent much of his time in Britain and Europe, where he felt more at home. He had some quiet respect for his roots however. At the end of his famous list of things America did not have, he added: ‘The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains – that is his secret, his joke, as one may say.’
- Wolf Hall
- Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, an advisor to King Henry VIII, set in the 16th century. Mantel’s achievement in winning the Booker was doubled when she won the Booker again with Wolf Hall’s sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, three years later.