It's become somewhat unfashionable in Britain to publicly rail against competition from immigrants and the dilution of national identity. Two-thirds of babies born in London have at least one foreign parent; the Olympics showed Britain at its multi-cultural best; and it would be hard to deny that foreigners have brought prosperity, vibrancy, and better food. There are only two places, really, where Little Englanders can still nurse a pint and sing a sad song for the good old days: right-wing pubs and literary circles.
The latter, however, are about to be infiltrated. Last week, the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, announced that it would in the future welcome novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author. (The sudden change of mind may have been inspired by a new rival, the Folio Prize, which has promised a similar open-doors policy.) Some leading British critics and authors have protested against the decision, arguing that the new format, and especially the inclusion of Americans*, will water down the significance of the prize and lead to its demise. They are wrong: Embracing foreign talent will reinvigorate the competition for the Booker Prize and turn it into a better representation of diverse, plucky, and meritocratic modern Britain and the global reach of its language.
Since its beginning in 1969, the Booker has only accepted entries from British, Irish, or Commonwealth citizens, its territory thus more or less mirroring that of the British Empire. English literature, however, subverted first the hierarchy and then the boundaries of that empire: The colonial novel, written by white Englishmen melting in the tropical heat, made way first for authors such Salman Rushdie who traveled in the other direction, and then later for groundbreaking British-born writers from Hanif Kureishi to Zadie Smith, who mashed up different linguistic and cultural traditions but kept an emphasis on Britain's colonial legacy.
In today's Britain, the Pakistani-owned "beautiful launderette" of Kureishi's eponymous screenplay might now be neighbors with a Polski sklep. All over London, Spanish-staffed coffee chains sit next to West Indian chicken stalls and Turkish hairdressers. Britain is becoming more like America: a magnet to migrants from all over the world. This includes migrant writers, and not ones just from former colonies.
The Booker's old criteria, then, were out of step with reality. Just as Vladimir Nabokov, Junot Diaz, and Kurt Vonnegut added Russian, Dominican, and German cadences to American literature, British literature will be shaped by the current and next wave of immigrants. As I write this, a Polish pickle vendor in North London might be in the process of scribbling the next Great British Novel during her lunch break. Literary prize-givers would be wrong to ignore her—if you can't judge a book by its cover, why should you judge it by its author's passport?
And while immigrants are streaming into Britain, the English language continues to spread far beyond the borders of the old empire. Some 300 million Chinese are reportedly learning English, about five times the population of Britain. I’ve lived in Milan, Tokyo, Singapore, Bogota, and Paris, and in each of those places, English was the language of choice between expats from as far afield as Croatia and Korea. Many of them wrote short stories, novels, or memoirs in English. The expansion of English globally is a fantastic development because language thrives on new influences; today, the English canon encompasses both Jane Austen's famous "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," and the Thai food vendor's cry, "Same-same but different!"
Yet from the outcry in the literary pages following the news that the Booker Prize was about to become more inclusive, you might have thought the Huns had invaded Hyde Park.
"The sort of English novelists who speak to an English readership about English matters, however refined or profound their technique and subject, is gone," wrote Philip Hensher in a Guardian column titled "Well, that's the end of the Booker Prize, then." Hensher was specifically protesting the inclusion of American writers, but the underlying premise is questionable.* I grew up in a provincial German town, but I spent hours reading Jane Austen in the original in the local library; I pressed Graham Greene's The Quiet American into the hands of a friend, another German teenager; and I giggled at P.G. Wodehouse's snobs and butlers by flashlight under my duvet. I was unaware at the time that there was such a thing as English books for English readers, and I’m still skeptical today.