September 17, 2013

What is your damage, Man Booker?


All of the prize committees are locked in a battle for the red scrunchie this week. Just as the National Book Award attendees are packing their party outfits for the festival in DC, the Man Booker Prize will be taking center stage as it announces changes to its rules in a Wednesday press conference.

The Booker is rumored to extend eligibility for the prize to authors from the U.S. This is likely a response to the Folio Prize, set up earlier this year for Jonathan Franzen writers around the globe.

Historically the Booker, which was founded (as the Booker-McConnell) in 1968, has only considered authors from England, Canada, Scotland, Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland, and Zimbabwe. If they expand their clique to include writers from the U.S., they would trump the Folio Prize as the largest English language prize in the world.

The official announcement won’t arrive until tomorrow, but the Sunday Times, the BBC, The Independent, and even American publications like Time have picked up the story, interviewing as many previous nominees on record as they can. The Booker committee isn’t happy about it.

Last week Booker Prize Foundation literary director Ion Trewin denied that they were adding any Americans to the judges’ reading list yet, saying, “It’s one of those subjects that’s always being discussed. [But] at the moment we have no plans to start announcing some major change.”

He explained, “The problem of non-simultaneous publication between the UK and US is one of the reasons why [we limit geographic submissions], because we are a contemporary prize making the award in the year the books are published. Admitting any writer who writes in English isn’t easy while—even with ebooks—still there is often a gap between the U.S. and UK. It’s the reason we haven’t taken that step.”

So why are rumors circulating this week? “The information which is currently in circulation is incomplete,” said a spokesperson for the Booker on Monday.

If it’s true, the Morgan Library’s “Bookermania” exhibition opened last week with impeccable timing. Most publications agree that to preserve the judges’ sanity, U.S. authors would only be eligible if they’re published by UK imprints. Publishers would still be limited to two entries per imprint. But would the prestige, and the “distinct” qualities of the prize be lost if authors from the U.S. could win?

Michael Bhaskar writes for The Bookseller that he thinks the prize should remain closed:

At the minute the Booker is a great place for African and sub-continental writers to find real media exposure in the West; it is a commercial focus for literary publishing in the UK. Both have real value, and both would be diluted…. It’s hard to imagine the Booker being more than a second tier prize for the big names, bookshops and readers of the US.

David Lodge, who was shortlisted in 1984 and 1988, said the change would be “very much a reaction to the setting up of the Folio Prize.” He added, “My concern is the sheer number of novels that become eligible. There would have to be some method for deciding which novels get put before the judges, and the Booker would lose its distinctive openness.”

Jim Crace, author of the shortlisted novel Harvest, also wishes to keep the prize closed. “In principle, I should believe in all prizes being open to everyone. But I think prizes need to have their own characters, and sometimes those characters are defined by their limitations.”

Howard Jacobsen, who won the prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, calls admitting U.S. authors “the wrong decision.” Will Wiles, author of Take Care of Wooden Floors, says it’s “a kick in the teeth.”

Scott Pack, publisher of The Friday Project, disagrees:

I don’t care what sex an author is, what country they come from, what language they write in, what sexuality they are, whether a book is their first, their third or their twenty-fifth, whether they received a grant or a massive advance, what genre they write in or any other variable. I, like most readers, just want to read wonderful books and if this move brings a more varied range of books to my attention then it is fine by me.

He points out that this development might steal some attention away from another prize that already considers authors from the U.S.: the Baileys/Orange Prize.

Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the 1987 winner Remains of the Day, said he got the early scoop from an inside source. He responded, “It’s sad in a way because of the traditions of the Booker, and I can understand some people feeling a bit miffed, but the world has changed and it no longer makes sense to split up the writing world in this way.”

Responding to whether UK writers will have to struggle to win the prize under the new rules, Ishiguro said, “I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. But if it turned out that way, you’d have to ask why.”



Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.