America and the Man Booker Prize

Richard-FlanaganLast night, the winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014 was revealed to be Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan’s novel has been described as a ‘remarkable love story as well as a story about human suffering and comradeship’ by A.C. Grayling, the chair of the judges. It is ‘a novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.’ It is many things, but it is not American.

Up until this year, the Man Booker Prize has only been open to books written by citizens of the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe, and Ireland. This year, however, the rules changed, and now any author can be considered as long as their novel is published in the UK and written in English. Of course, this meant that, for the first time ever, American authors could, and did, get involved.

Though it seems like a natural progression to include more nationalities, especially as the lines between English and American literature are blurred now as we grow to become similar nations, it has received much negative feedback. It limits the amount of attention non-British Commonwealth authors might be given; Flanagan was the only non-English Commonwealth author in this year’s shortlist, and this has been considered by some critics to mark an end to post-colonial literature.

It is true that ‘American publishing has, in the Pulitzers and National Book Critics Circle, internationally prestigious awards.’ It is not necessary for American authors to join the Man Booker Prize, too. I think that the most interesting perspective I have found on the issue is from Colin Dickey. Dickey, an American writer, felt that the Prize was previously ‘worth renouncing [his] US citizenship for’, and now feels ‘disappointed [he] no longer [has] to’. He felt that the purpose of the Prize ‘was to celebrate dispatches from the furthest reaches of the Commonwealth, from Northern Ireland to Nigeria.’ By opening up the award to more nationalities, have we actually narrowed down the global perspectives we can usually find in the longlist?

By opening up the prize to more nations, the Booker Foundation is forward thinking, perhaps better known, and more relevant. However, the move also suggests a concern that we are running out of great authors, and need to fill up the longlist with Americans as our own novels are not good enough. Although I agree with much of the negative criticism, I feel that the move was inevitable. You can pick up a novel by an American author now and not even realise where the writer was from until you get to the biography on the last page, so why should these novels be discluded? As Flanagan, an Australian, won the Prize this year, it seems that there was actually little to worry about. Ultimately, the competition might just spur Commonwealth authors to create more edgy and interesting material in the future.

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