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.
Hensher went on to write of the Booker's decision: "I don't think I've ever heard so many novelists say, as over the last two or three days, ‘Well, we might as well just give up, then.’" That would, of course, be brilliant news—for there’s nothing more depressing than a half-hearted novelist, whose only motivation for writing is the prospect of winning the Booker and who believes he or she only stands a chance when other good writers are excluded.
Hensher's lament, though, reveals another, more serious problem with the reaction to the Booker's decision. Much has been written about what the decision means for judges, authors, and sales teams, but ultimately, the prize is not about them. It's about readers, and about helping readers find a promising new book to devour. Literary prizes offer a great opportunity for recommending a book that might not otherwise have come to readers' attention, but that ends up enchanting them and exposing them to a different world. There's a reason why writers gravitate to cities like Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, and New York: Cities are engines of cross-cultural creativity. It's wonderful that the Booker foundation now celebrates this, vowing to "embrace authors writing in English, whether from Chicago, Sheffield or Shanghai."
The prospect of seeing a Moldovan or Russian non-native author writing in English on the list, then, shouldn’t be threatening—it should be exciting. After all, even the fiercest defenders of the Booker's purity will concede that Nabokov managed to cobble together a few decent English sentences in his lifetime. And American fiction certainly benefited from this, even if Nabokov himself had his doubts.
"My English, this second instrument I have always had, is however a stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need the shortest road between warehouse and shop," Nabokov told an interviewer from The Paris Review in 1967. "Nobody can decide if I am a middle-aged American writer or an old Russian writer—or an ageless international freak."
That’s just one more reason to extend a hearty recognition to English prose written by non-native English speakers: Non-native writing means making things deliberately difficult for yourself. It makes you work harder at every sentence, and the mental exercise it adds can be frustrating as well as rewarding. In 1981, Herbert Mitang wrote in The New York Times that "[Samuel] Beckett says that he began to write in French because he wanted to get away from his mother tongue; writing in English somehow made it come too easy." In fact, Waiting for Godot was first published in French.
It's precisely this stiffness, unwieldiness, and freakishness that can generate a piece of prose unlike anything you've read before. No one looks to Nabokov for the shortest road; no one looks to literature itself for the shortest road.
The patron saint of writers struggling with linguistic identity is of course Franz Kafka, who grew up in a German- and Bohemian-speaking Jewish family in the Bohemian capital of Prague and wrote all his works in German. My father used to tell me that as a school-boy, Kafka actually had better grades in Bohemian than in German, the implication being that if he was already a great writer in German, well, just imagine how mind-blowing he would have been had he written in Bohemian.
The snag in this argument is that languages are not like bicycles, where the faster and more streamlined model usually wins. Just as Nabokov would not be Nabokov if he had known and used the shortest road between warehouse and shop, Kafka would not be Kafka if he had felt wholly at ease in his language. When he wrote about "the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing differently," he specifically meant the struggle of Jewish-German writers. But if you replace "German" with "English," his words fit the situation of many non-native, expat, and immigrant writers of English literature today. The result of those impossibilities, Kafka wrote, was "an in every way impossible literature, a gypsy literature that had stolen the German child out of the cradle and in great haste trained it up in some fashion because, after all, someone had to dance on the tightrope."
We are all watching the English child dance on the tightrope now. The Booker has rightly decided to sell some tickets to the show. Perhaps next, the Pulitzer should do the same by recognizing writers of any nationality who publish original English novels in the U.S.—because as far as I can tell, the dance is looking pretty good.