07/10/2013, by CLAS

Booker without Borders?

The diverse 2013 Man Booker-shortlisted authors – the Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo; the Canadian-born New Zealander Eleanor Catton; the Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri; the Japanese-American-Canadian Ruth Ozeki; the Irish Colm Toíbín; and the British Jim Crace – will be the last to be celebrated under the prize’s traditional catchment area. In 2014, the prize opens to “any author writing in English,” not just the citizens of Ireland, Zimbabwe, and Commonwealth countries. Although the Booker Prize Foundation hails this “global expansion,” the UK press mostly regards this shift as extending the prize to American authors.

Changes to the prize’s catchment area have long been anticipated; speculation was particularly heightened when the Man Group assumed the Booker’s sponsorship in 2002. Now that the Americans are indeed coming (or at least are invited), the UK press is largely questioning the likelihood of non-Americans winning the prize. Americans were eligible for other international prizes—the Nobel Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Award, the Orange Prize/Women’s Prize for Fiction, the James Tait Black Prize, and the upcoming Folio Prize—before the Man Booker expansion. And it remains to be seen whether Americans will dominate future Man Booker shortlists. But rather than focus on whether non-Americans will now be overlooked, we should consider the implications for the body of literature that has been eligible for the Man Booker until now, and ask just how “global” is a prize that stipulates that books must be published in the UK?

In expanding its catchment area, the Man Booker abandons its ostensibly postcolonial framework, which put even the imperial centre into the context of the literature of other Commonwealth countries. One problematic requirement remains, however: only books published in the UK have ever been eligible, a major obstacle (shared with the likes of the Orange/Women’s Prize, the James Tait Black, the Folio) for numerous non-UK writers. As a scholar and teacher of Canadian literature, for instance, I am keenly aware of the many prominent and extraordinarily gifted Canadian writers (such as Dionne Brand and Thomas King) who are not published in the UK. If the Man Booker Prize’s director Ion Trewin argues that “increased competition would make winning an even greater accolade”, the seemingly international competition is considerably curtailed from the outset.

In demanding UK publication, the Man Booker privileges the UK’s literary culture. Eschewing this publication criterion would not be impossible. The IMPAC Dublin requires publication in English, regardless of location. In terms of postcolonial literature, the former Commonwealth Writers’ Prize judged texts within geographical regions, without the necessity of UK publication, before selecting the overall prize from the regional winners. This prize has scaled down recently to a short-story prize. With the Man Booker seemingly going global, however, we may need something like the Commonwealth prize’s former incarnation. If the Folio and Man Booker Prizes will cover the same ground, apparently open to all writers in English but excluding many, a postcolonial award following in the footsteps of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize could be a welcome challenge in its reach and inclusivity.

Dr Gillian Roberts is Associate Professor of North American Cultural Studies. She is the author of Prizing Literature: the Celebration and Circulation of National Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2011).

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Posted in American and Canadian Studies