Do we really need the Booker?

It was going to happen sooner or later. The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has thrown into relief fears that were tentatively voiced in 2014, when, in the name of globalism, the competition was first opened to American authors: that a US-UK hegemony would cast its shadow over the literary world, sidelining smaller Commonwealth voices and severely curtailing any purchase on diversity.

This year’s shortlist almost exclusively comprises American and British authors: Ottessa Moshfegh from the US, and Deborah Levy, Paul Beatty, David Szalay and Graeme Macrae Burnet from the UK. There is only one Commonwealth representative, Madeleine Thien of Canada. The longlist included a further five Americans. Dr Amanda Foreman, this year’s chair, played the apologist. She stated that ‘what we have to do is avoid homogeneity, that would be terrible’, and insisted that American and British literary and historical heritage are fundamentally different. A truism, but not a particularly useful one. The homogeneity was noted.

The list is in stark contrast to the marked variety of recent Booker listings, which fielded a wide range of authors from Ireland, India, Nigeria and Jamaica, and were crowned by the successes of Richard Flanagan and Marlon James. In total, almost half the Booker’s winners have been from Commonwealth nations. For authors such as Aravind Adiga, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Anita Desai, the Booker has provided a forum for exploring the effects of decolonisation, mediating between the local and the global through what has developed into a particular generic idiom – that of the ‘cosmopolitan global novel’.

This is, in part, a consequence of the historical conditions out of which the prize arose. Established in 1968, the Booker became synonymous with the dissolution of the remnants of the empire and the emergence of post-1960s globalisation and late capitalism, both an agent and reflection of the logic of a global market. The prize’s initial sponsor, the Booker McConnell Company, had its roots in nineteenth-century colonial industrialism in Guyana: the evaluation of literature facilitated their rewriting of a disreputable past, and provided a transition from the colonial to the cosmopolitan.

The relatively recent phenomenon of literary prizes, of which the Booker remains the superlative example, has always tracked and consolidated its geopolitical framework and mode of production, what James English refers to, in Bourdieusian terms, as an ‘economy of prestige’. Our literary standards are an index of our worldviews. David Lodge, on the occasion of the Booker’s twentieth anniversary in 1989, said ‘it is no coincidence, surely, that this decade was also the decade of Enterprise Culture, a market-led economy, and the expansion and deregulation of high finance’. The literature of the Commonwealth could stand as a byword for both cultural pluralism and economic entrepreneurship, its mode of production immanent within its thematics.

With this in mind, this year’s shortlist has been further framed by the UK’s decision to leave the EU this June. The vote has shaken the British publishing industry considerably. ‘Publishing’s nightmare scenario has come true’, Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, lamented. Overnight, a single market of 500 million customers, to which the UK had exclusive access, was compromised. Exports account for 44 per cent of UK publishers’ revenues, particularly to the EU. A devalued currency has further compounded the crisis. Publishers will now have to contend with France’s prix du livre and Germany’s Preisbindung over market prices, distribution rights, and payment laws.

Juliet Mabey, managing director and founder of Oneworld, (publisher of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings) was equally commiseratory: ‘the 10% reduction in the value of the pound will be a huge blow to the industry, in terms of export income. Whether publishers sell rights … or like Oneworld publish a large portion of their list in the English-language market themselves, the depressed exchange rate will be hugely significant.’

This changes things, for the UK, for the Booker, and for global literature. BookBrunch’s editor Neill Denny wistfully suggested that ‘the rejection of Europe pushes us back into the Anglophone world, where we can play a starring role’. As with many UK industries, publishers have idealised a resurgent Commonwealth as an answer to the loss of the EU’s single-market. So it is curious that, at a time when one might expect the UK to strengthen its latent connections to its global literature base, the Booker shortlist has instead affirmed a myopic trans-Atlantic attitude. As Britain extricates itself from one political narrative and moves increasingly towards a policy of isolation, the Booker shortlist does not signal confidence in any future solidarity with the Commonwealth.

With such shifting boundaries, it is pertinent to question what the Booker stands for, and whether it remains a relevant measure under changing circumstances. Britain’s own reading habits have changed dramatically in recent years, shifting away from Anglophone literature to works of fiction in translation, particularly South Asian literature. According to a recent study, sales of translated literature grew by 96 per cent from 1.3 million copies in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2015, against an otherwise stagnant market. In the UK, South Korean fiction rose from only 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015. This trend has been recognised by the Man Booker’s international counterpart. The Man Booker International, a prize previously only awarded retrospectively to a body of work, was this year awarded to a single novel, The Vegetarian by South Korean Han Kang, a much more prescient indication of how global literature and its market value is evolving than the Man Booker has presented.

The question mark hovering over the Booker’s relevancy calls for reflection on Australian literature’s own predilections, and its affinity with the award. In 2014, Tony Abbott’s decision to override the judge’s choice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in favour of that year’s Booker winner Richard Flanagan was an instance of slavish adherence to an alienated standard. Our referential framework develops around our own socio-political activity. According to one poll this year, more Australians would prefer closer ties with China than with the US. Our literature has generated its own inter-relations and criteria, too. Initiatives such as the Australia-China Publishing Forum, and awards such as the DSC prize for South Asian Literature, the Man Asian, and the Australia-Asia Literary Award have all provided instances of an emerging award system that more accurately reflects the geopolitical context of Australian literary culture, albeit ones that have failed to gain widespread and consistent support. As a post-Brexit world scrambles to reorganise itself, we would do well to continue building upon these efforts.


Nicolas Liney

Nicolas Liney is the editorial intern at the International New York Times in London and graduate student in classics at the University of Oxford. His work has appeared in The Local, Brag Magazine and ARNA.

More by Nicolas Liney ›

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  1. Clearly, like most things, the Booker is evolving, and as you mention is joining the zeitgeist by putting translated works on a separate pedestal. So now we we have best work of translated fiction, and best ‘English-first’ work. Not a bad thing.

    The prevalence of American writers MIGHT be cause for concern, but it would be much more interesting to discuss the politics of the actual books, especially in context of where they come from. A Scottish crime novel in the time of Brexit and the independence referendum? A racial satire as BLM protesters march in the US? I would say the Booker panel is doing a very good job.

  2. Thanks Nicolas for your observations on the geopolitics of literary prestige. It struck me as odd that UK publishers were lamenting the pound’s devaluation: exporters usually see this as an opportunity. Why are books so expensive?

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