February 8, 2018

British Publishers want American authors banned from the Booker

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The Man Booker Prize is by far the most reputable literary prize in the UK, and one that affects books sales dramatically. We’ve reported on it extensively before, including 2014’s controversial rule change making any author of any nationality, writing in English, eligible to win it. It had theretofore been limited to authors of British, Irish, or Commonwealth origin. Since then, two American authors have won: Paul Beatty in 2016 for The Sellout, and George Saunders in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo. Before that, 2015 went to Marlon James, from Jamaica, and 2014 to Richard Flanagan, who is Australian.

Enough, for some, is enough. A group of British authors including Julian Barnes and Susan Hill have been vocal in their frustration, and now a band of thirty British publishers are lending their voices to the cause, in the form a collective letter to the prize’s organisers. It was meant to be private, but the Guardian’s Sian Cain managed to obtain a copy, and quotes it:

The rule change, which presumably had the intention of making the prize more global, has in fact made it less so, by allowing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others; and risks turning the prize, which was once a brilliant mechanism for bringing the world’s English-language writers to the attention of the world’s biggest English-language market, into one that is no longer serving the readers in that market.

The Booker Prize Foundation—who also reported having read a copy before the letter was actually sent—preempted it with an official response:

The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.

Contrary to the belief of the author of the letter, the diversity of the prize has not been ‘significantly reduced’ in the four years since the rule change. The 2014, 2015 and 2016 shortlists all included four (of six) non-US writers, and the 2014 and 2015 prizes were won by an Australian and Jamaican author respectively. Moreover, clear trends cannot be drawn from a mere four years of data.

The judges of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction are charged with finding the best novel of the year, in their opinion, written in English. The trustees believe that this mission cannot be constrained or compromised by national boundaries.

Let’s not play coy here: America has an English-speaking population around 300 million and dominates global publishing. No, the rule was not created specifically to include American writers, but it’s naïve to think they can avoid overtaking the competition.

Alastair Niven, a judge for the 2014 prize, told Cain:

“I don’t think that writers in this country have any reason to be paranoiac or timid about competition from the US. They should welcome the challenge. If American literary awards don’t include British writing then more fool them. It’s just another example of America First. Surely we don’t want to encourage a Britain First mentality here.”

That’s a nice thought, but there are many reasons to oppose the change without adopting a “Britain First” mentality. The diversity argument misses a main point. as Anthony Cummins eloquently puts in the Telegraph:

The publishers might have better made their point about diversity by noting how the odds are now stacked against those of them without the cash to spend on big-name signings. Since the rule change, half the total number of the shortlisted titles have come from the corporate conglomerate Penguin Random House. While independent firms do still make the shortlist—most notably Oneworld, which produced back-to-back winners in 2015 and 2016—only one has come from outside London. The shortlist of 2012, featuring novels published in Newcastle, Norfolk and High Wycombe, seems remote.

With so few book retail chains left in the UK, and with the significant impact a prize can have on book sales, the struggle of small publishers and independents to stay afloat is real. Why narrow the pool of opportunity even further by handing over promotional advantages to American authors? Cummins continues:

Why does any of this matter? The answer perhaps lies in a sobering report published last year by Arts Council England on the state of literary fiction. It says that in 2016, the 10,000th bestselling fiction title shifted around 99 copies, earning £600; the 1,000th bestselling title sold between 3000 and 4000 copies, earning £15,000.

In this context, the Man Booker jackpot is vital, less for its £50,000 grand prize than for how a place on the longlist can help lift a writer into sales that—while still tiny—make the difference between carrying on or giving up.

Having to compete against US novelists—already tried and tested on home turf—naturally increases the difficulty for British novelists. It’s all very well to say they should embrace that challenge rather than longing for a kind of literary protectionism. But ecosystems are fragile. The passion that the Booker’s rule change continues to rouse is a reflection of how the prize now finds itself the preeminent sponsor of an almost vanishingly unviable pursuit. Arguing over Americans is only a symptom of a deeper problem.

Well said. If you want to encourage the bankruptcy of smaller British presses, this is the way to go about it. Are American authors and publishers at fault? Absolutely not. There are serious problems in what Cummins terms the UK publishing “ecosystem.” But without addressing these problems, allowing a rule change that may negatively impact British publishing seems ill-advised. I would have signed the letter, too.

 

 

Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.

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