At just 28, Eleanor Catton is the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker Prize. Her winning novel, The Luminaries, is a dazzling feat of fiction set in 19th Century New Zealand against the backdrop of the Gold Rush. It is a twisting tale of coincidence and fate, as intricately and tightly mapped as the astrological charts to which Catton turns for her plot.
Fresh off the boat, the ‘unraveller’ of Catton’s tale, Walter Moody - a Scot eager to make his fortune on the goldfields - looks to the heavens and finds himself disorientated by the unfamiliar patterns of the Southern Hemisphere, “where everything was upended and unformed”. So too the Man Booker Prize is about to be turned on its head by an influx of American authors who, many fear, will swamp future lists. From next year, the prize will be open to any novel published in English in the UK, regardless of the author’s nationality, no longer confined to the citizens of the UK, Commonwealth countries, Zimbabwe and Ireland.
There has been much hue and cry raised by traditionalists concerned about the loss of a great British literary institution. The counter-argument, of course, is that the prize is perpetuating a literary map based on a now outdated British Empire: “Organising a literary prize around the long-gone historical accident of a set of political and trading relationships doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” wrote the critic and writer Sam Leith in the London Evening Standard. “The territory of the English novel is the English language.”
Andrew Kidd is the founder of the Folio Prize for Fiction, the genesis of which coincided with the debacle surrounding the 2011 Man Booker judging that prioritized “readability” over all else. He agrees with the principle that in this day and age, English literature has to encompass all English language writing. “When we set up the Folio Prize as a ‘borderless’ prize it was because it would have seemed perverse to do otherwise in the 21st Century,” he explained to BBC Culture. Despite being denied by the trustees, rumour is rife that the Booker changes are a direct response to the Folio Prize’s more contemporary competition. Interesting, then, that Kidd also took pains to point out “But the Man Booker Prize predates this century, and while its parameters may have appeared anachronistic to some, they were nonetheless extremely effective.”
Race for the prize
The naysayers – 2011 winner Julian Barnes, and 2008 shortlistee Philip Hensher among them – are right to worry that opening the prize up to Americans entries will have an adverse effect on sales of British (and Commonwealth) writers’ books in the US. “Arguably the Man Booker Prize sold more books in the States than America’s own, home-grown prizes do,” Kidd continued, “because it brought to American readers’ attention some of the most interesting English language writing from elsewhere. And now of course that can no longer be the case.”
A Booker nomination really does mean higher sales. Take Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home from last year’s shortlist, for example. Originally published by the small independent And Other Stories, the nomination saw sales skyrocket so speedily that an immediate distribution partnership was struck with the larger Faber & Faber for a second print run in order to keep up with demand. The title was then sold to Bloomsbury in the US, and what’s more, Penguin UK are now set to republish four of her early works next spring.
The British/American novelist Francesca Segal, author of The Innocents – winner of the Costa First Novel Award, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the hugely prestigious National Jewish Book Award for Fiction – tempered her concern, by adding: “Of course the Booker has tremendous cachet everywhere but even after their new eligibility, I still believe an American writer would prefer to win a Pulitzer. Meanwhile, winning the Booker is career-changing for a Commonwealth author − just ask Howard Jacobson about his new status in America since he won.”
Let’s not forget the impact a Booker nomination has on an author’s success in their home country. Speaking to Catton just after she’d been shortlisted, she described an interesting dichotomy between a general public in New Zealand eager to embrace any of their countrymen or women’s successes on an international stage. “Everyone starts clapping you on the back and saying ‘Well done’, as if we’re all part of one big family, which I suppose we are” she said. This contrasted with “chilly” homegrown reviews, the reaction, she suggests, of a country that’s “deeply insecure about its intellectual stake in world conversations”. The worry now, of course, is that these and other non-American voices will be reduced to little more than a distant and indistinct murmur.
On the flipside, of course, there’s an argument to be made that the Booker has an already expansive reach that includes US writers by default – as one literary agent joked at Granta’s celebratory party on Tuesday night: “What’s all the fuss about, this year’s list is already half American!” (Both Bengali-born Jhumpa Lahiri and Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo reside in the US and have done so for many years.)
Indeed, ‘diversity’ was the watchword for this year’s shortlist. Between them, the contending titles spanned five continents – from New Zealand; through the streets of Calcutta all the way to Rhode Island in Lahiri’s The Lowland; Zimbabwean shantytowns to suburban Detroit in Bulawayo’s We Need New Names; a small house in Ephesus (in present day Turkey) in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary; Japan and British Columbia in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being; and finally, a small English village in Jim Crace’s Harvest, the only book on the list set in the UK, written by the only author permanently resident here too. Irish-born Tóibín is also now based in America; Catton resides in her native New Zealand; and Ozeki in Canada.
Fellow Canadian Alison McLeod, whose novel Unexploded was longlisted for this year’s award, described the changes to the prize as a “logical move” given the award’s already “global reputation”. “Great books need to bypass borders; that’s what literature does at its best,” she said. But she also made the important point that what looks like a “widening of the list, might actually be a narrowing of things.
“Readers are now more likely to choose a book after reading an award list than a review. Award lists generate most excitement when they give us the names we already love to love. If our review culture continues to shrink, and if the international award lists begin to overlap and champion the same authors, we’ll soon each be reading the same 12 books a year and supporting literary celebrity, not literature.”
What lies ahead for the prize is unknown, but as this year’s judging process concludes, Catton’s Antipodean success is particularly timely – something of a final vestige of the Booker’s Commonwealth history.