Booklove: The Booker’s New Imperium

(Published in the Business Standard, September 24, 2013)


It was in 1899 that Rudyard Kipling beseeched the US to “take up the White Man’s burden”, in an infamous poem. Kipling was thinking of conquering “new-caught, sullen peoples”, not extending the dominion of the United States across the Man Booker Prize when he suggested that America might want to “send forth the best ye breed”.

And yet his lines hold true for a swiftly changing Prize. “Have done with childish days,” he wrote, urging those imperialists across the ocean to eschew “the lightly proffered laurel/ the easy, ungrudged praise”.

The change in the rules of the Man Booker, announced this week, makes all English-language writers eligible for the influential prize, rather than restricting entry only to writers from Britain, Ireland and the countries of the Commonwealth. Most commentators assume that this will mean a new age of American domination. Here’s a cheat sheet to the many debates over the rule changes.

Does this change the Man Booker?

Yes, drastically; though the Prize’s identity has evolved over the decades. It was a chiefly British prize through the 1970s, with a smattering of Commonwealth authors, and became far more international in the 1980s. By the 2000s, the Booker had become the most influential prize for almost all writers in English. Since it was defined by the geographical spread of the former British Empire, it covered most of the countries where English was spoken—except for America.

So if the Booker’s opening up to America, the Pulitzer…?

Has no such plans and nor does the NBA. There’s no reciprocity, but then the Americans didn’t, technically, conquer other countries or establish a Commonwealth. For British and Commonwealth authors, this means that they have less chance of being shortlisted for the Booker, but they don’t have the trade-off of, say, being shortlisted for the Pulitzer.

This is UNFAIR!

Actually, no. The intellectual justification for a Commonwealth prize is shaky, given that the sun set over the Empire a while back. British writers in this decade have access to far more prizes than before, from the IMPAC (compiled by librarians, includes translations), to the Guardian First Book Award, the Orange Prize (for women writers, nationality blind) and the new Folio Prize (also open to writers in English from all countries). The Commonwealth Prize recently put an end to its flagship book prize, keeping only the short story prize alive, so yes, it’s a bad year for Commonwealth writers.

What happens to Indian/ subcontinental/ African/ other Commonwealth writers in English?

Good question. But except for publishers and a few dedicated, slightly musty readers, Indians care about the Booker Prize the way we care about Miss World, or Miss Universe or Miss Tourism International. We like winning stuff, and we like knowing that every so often, a Salman Rushdie or a Kiran Desai or an Aravind Adiga will bring the prize back home. We wouldn’t care if it wasn’t all about us.

With heightened competition for those six places on the Booker shortlist, it’s not just Australian, or Indian, or Commonwealth writers who will lose out—it’s any first-time or fledgling writer. You’ll see a lot less in the way of talented debutants or unknown authors, and probably more epic shortlists featuring established authors. It’ll be that much harder for everyone.

But this is a tragedy!

Only as much as it is for Indian writers who don’t write in English and haven’t been available in the global marketplace. Perhaps writers from the former colonies have to hope that their own countries develop equally influential prizes. It took the Booker ten years to establish its name, which it did chiefly by producing shortlists that appealed to a wide cross-section of readers. We haven’t had an equally long-playing Asian or African prize yet; though it should be noted that both the Cervantes for Spanish writers and the Goncourt for French writers are formidably influential.

Also, the most interesting prize shortlists in recent years have come from prizes, like the IMPAC and the Orange, that are nationality-blind; or the ones, like the Aventis prize for science writing or the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, that focus on genre rather than territory.

What exactly do the rules say?

What might have the biggest effect on their shortlists is the new Booker’s method of handicapping publishers. It’s complicated, but publishers whose authors have been shortlisted for a Booker in the last five years can send in more nominations than those who haven’t. This could cause major skews, especially for large trade publishers who have many established authors on their lists. As with horse races, calculating odds just got a lot more complicated.

Forget the Americans. What does this mean for us?

Indian writers will have to compete more fiercely for a place on the shortlist, just like everyone else. But a) most of India’s bestselling authors aren’t seen as “literary” enough for the Booker, and they’re doing just fine without it and b) we have an embarassment of new and old prizes for Indian writers in English at this point.

More facetiously, don’t forget the rapidly expanding Indian NRI writer contingent. They could, like Miss America, infiltrate this Brit-American conspiracy from within.






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