Why Americans Should Stay Out of the Booker Contest

Next year, Americans will be eligible for the Man Booker prize, the British Commonwealth's answer to the Pulitzer, and pretty much everyone is a little iffy on the whole thing.

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Next year, Americans will be eligible for the Man Booker Prize, Britain's answer to the Pulitzer, and pretty much everyone is a little iffy on the whole thing. As of now the prize is only open to authors from the British commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe, but if the the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan are eligible, who knows what could happen? In a rare turn events, authors, critics and academics agree that this is probably a bad idea, for a few reasons.

American authors already have enough awards

American authors have the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the National Book Award and the biannual Man Booker International prize. "Why shouldn’t Britons then be eligible for American prizes?" asked Gaby Wood at The Telegraph. "The only American literary prize open to British authors (albeit those published by American houses) is the National Book Critics Circle Award." Americans didn't necessarily ask to be eligible for the Booker, but we haven't exactly embraced world literature with open arms, either.

“Not sure I can see a reason for this. Why can’t we have a prize of our own?" said Susan Hill, a British author who was shortlisted for the award in 1972. And while some might argue that Brits are just worried about Americans taking all their awards, one wonders why the Pulitzer and the National Book Award are only open to Americans. "UK small, open economy; US protectionist?" tweeted Reuters editor Simon Robinson.

It's bad for British, Irish and Commonwealth authors

Patrick Deer, an associate professor of English at NYU (and a Brit who has been based out of New York for the last 25 years) said he had mixed feelings about the news. "On the one hand it's a recognition of the increasingly global nature of Anglo-American publishing and readership," Deer told The Atlantic Wire.

At the same time, Deer argued that the Man Booker has allowed British, Irish and commonwealth authors to "punch above their weight" in the American book market. Deer said there's "the potential for more neglected and quirky British writers getting edged out for popular American fiction." Linda Grant, a British author whose The Clothes on Their Backs was shortlisted for the Booker in 2008, tweeted that being shortlisted got her a U.S. publisher and "access to a huge market I didn't have before." More competition means less exposure and less commercial success.

Maybe the greatest risk would be to Booker-eligible authors outside of the U.K. and Ireland, such as Zimbabwe's NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names) and New Zealand's Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries), whose works might be elbowed out. This year's Booker shortlist showcased the diversity the prize is capable, and as Deer noted, it would be ashamed to lose that variety because of mainstream American novels.

It's bad for the Man Booker Prize

In many ways, the Booker Prize's restrictions have helped define it. While the organizers say that excluding American authors is anachronistic, others, including John Crace of The Guardian, think this is just an unnecessary "pre-emptive strike" against the Folio Prize, which will be open to all works written in English. However, as Crace noted, "there's also an argument to be made that a prize's limitations help to define its character. The Man Booker has hardly gone unnoticed since it began in 1969 and its idiosyncrasies have become part of its appeal."

Colin Midson, a publishing consultant who represents Catton, told The Telegraph:

I think it's a shame. If you look through the list of winners for the past 40 years or so it has a very strong character: there's a certain type of book we in the industry think of as ‘a Booker book’, and now that will be less clear.

Jim Crace (no relation to John), the only British author to make this year's Booker shortlist, said the award would lose focus if opened up to all English language authors. "I’m very fond of the sense of the Commonwealth," Crace said. "There’s something in there that you would lose if you open it up to American authors."

Part of that something might be the prize's history of documenting the rise of postcolonial literature. As Radhika Jones wrote at Time, postcolonial trends have played out in the Booker shortlists, especially during the 80s and 90s. She wrote:

What made the Booker a terrific prize was that, for a couple of decades, it tapped almost unerringly into the literary-political zeitgeist. If you want to see a prize at its liveliest and most relevant, have a look at the Booker shortlists and winners of the 1980s and ’90s, when the “English” novel was undergoing radical reconstruction by writers from very non-English places [...] You can chart the rise of postcolonial fiction—fiction by writers from the former British empire that challenged those imperial lines of influence and power—through the Booker’s arc.

But will the 2014 Booker Prize be swept by U.S., one of those former colonies? Probably not. "On the basis of quality, I believe there is nothing to fear: the work now being produced by those already eligible for the Man Booker easily stands up against the work of their American contemporaries," Wood wrote at The Telegraph. And Deer said this would be a chance for the commonwealth to prove its works stand up along Americans, adding that the Booker judges' previous record bodes well for the future. "The judges haven't been averse to risk, and I hope they keep generating diverse long lists," he said.

The Booker Prize organizers will formally announce American eligibility on Wednesday.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.