December 1, 2016
What’s in a prize? British authors rally to slam the Booker’s ruling to allow American authors to participate
by Nikki Griffiths
This year, Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize with his novel The Sellout. And while sales have soared, with independent bookshop chain Foyles having just picked it as their Book of the Year, a collective of UK authors are not so happy. Why? Because Beatty is American.
Established in 1969, the literary prize was originally limited to authors from Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth, but in 2014 the rules were changed to allow American writers to participate.
British author Julian Barnes, who won the 2011 Booker Prize with The Sense of an Ending, has been very vocal in his disapproval at this new ruling, saying to the Radio Times:
“The Americans have got enough prizes of their own. The idea of (the Booker) being Britain, Ireland, the old Commonwealth countries and new voices in English from around the world gave it a particular character and meant it could bring on writers. If you also include Americans—and get a couple of heavy hitters—then the unknown Canadian novelist hasn’t got a chance.”
Is this a case of sour grapes — British authors slamming the new Booker ruling because they have not found themselves in the running? The situation is, I believe, more complex, given the shear weight and importance accorded to literary prizes in the UK.
Author Deborah Moggach summed up the situation very neatly at the Independent Bath Literature Festival this year, saying, “We’re more skewed than America, which doesn’t pay nearly so much attention to prizes… It’s quite recent here that the market has skewed, the numbers of copies of books they sell is hugely skewed by the prize. It isn’t really healthy.”
Which anyone working in the UK publishing industry will find it hard to argue against. And, being the most prestigious of prizes, the Man Booker Prize is a big deal in the UK. Writing in the Mirror last month, Chantelle Symester reported that, since the 2016 Man Booker shortlist announcement, four of the shortlisted books saw 200% increases in sales on Amazon. The Sellout got a 170,000-copy reprint following its win this year.
Authors including Susan Hill, AS Byatt, Philip Hensher, Amanda Craig, and Louisa Young have joined Barnes in their condemnation. Hill told Danuta Kean at the Guardian: “This year saw the first US author win, but the dice are now loaded against UK authors in sheer weight of numbers in the US.”
Craig elaborated on what she saw as the problem:
“The point is, Americans are not only different culturally but they have loads more support via creative writing programmes — they can actually make a living as literary novelists. We can’t.
“A prize, or even just getting on to the longlist of a major prize, is not the difference between surviving and living but between surviving and not surviving, being published and not being published.”
Of course, Juliet Mabey of Oneworld, publisher of The Sellout, defended the win, saying: “It’s about the best. Right now, I am looking at submissions from US and British agents and we are getting some cracking novels coming in from Ireland. I seriously suspect the next winner will be Irish.”
Will Self also dismissed the importance of the rule change, telling Kean the importance placed on prizes is a global and cultural phenomenon that effects many sectors.
“Pets win prizes… It hardly matters if they’re Boston terriers or British bulldogs, the important thing is that prizes have come to dominate the literary world because they’re effective marketing tools in a cultural era in which genuine literary criticism and judgment has given way to febrile consumerism.”
At the time of the Booker rule announcement back in 2013, Hensher debated what it would mean for the future, writing in the Guardian under the cheery headline ‘Well, that’s the end of the Booker prize, then’:
“It is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic superpower exerting its own literary tastes, just as the British empire imposed the idea that Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived throughout its 19th-century colonies.”
He certainly pinpointed trouble ahead, as taken up by Barnes and Co. Could Hensher be right? Could the Booker rule change condemn British authors to the literary scrapheap? The sheer number of novels coming out the US will surely outweigh British and Commonwealth prize submissions. But at the end of the day, aren’t we looking for the best of the best, no matter where it comes from?
We await next year’s winner with baited breath. In the meantime, I do think it needs to be acknowledged that the UK and US book markets work in markedly different ways and that if we want to support and nurture local writers, more needs to be done.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.