On Wednesday Jonathan Taylor, Chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, made an announcement that rocked the literary world and continues to make waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Starting in 2014, the Man Booker Prize will “expand eligibility for future prizes to include novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author.” As many commentators have already noted, the primary implication of this announcement is that American authors will be allowed to compete alongside novelists from the British Commonwealth, Ireland, and Zimbabwe. Whatever may be your opinion of American versus British writing, this is nothing but a ploy by the board of trustees to make more money, thus increasing their “prestige.” The Booker Prize Foundation is selling out to a global book market.
An obvious result of this change, whether the trustees want to acknowledge it or not, is that more books will now be more “saleable” in the United States, the largest book market. A brochure put out by the foundation states that its prize “transforms a winner’s career” and guarantees “a dramatic increase in book sales.” This has only been partially true in North America. Perhaps previous winners, by mostly British or Irish authors, were too “European” for America’s taste. The majority of U.S. readers, that is, those who do not keep up to date with the latest literary news, will probably not go to their bookstore looking for a British book, even if it is a prize winner. A good many customers base their purchases on what is displayed prominently at their bookstore. For good or for evil, this is almost never from an author of another nationality. Walking into Barnes and Noble last year if I was lucky I might have caught Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies for a brief month right after the awards were announced. Swimming Home? Narcopolis? The Garden of Evening Mists? I had never heard of them until I just looked up the 2012 shortlist. But I guarantee that if an American author or two made that list, we would see his works in the front window of the neighborhood bookstore.
And why is that such a bad thing, you ask? Isn’t it good to sell more books and get more people reading? Yes, of course that is beneficial. But I want more diversity in my reading habits. I don’t want to be pushed toward more of the same, even if it was published by a British company. There is a good chance that company is probably owned by the same conglomerate as an American publisher anyway. Now the Booker Prize has joined a legion of other prizes, with no distinction for who it judges. I may have had to ask my bookseller to find me a copy of the prize winner, but at least I had the authority of knowledgeable judges giving me a recommendation. And authors from countries outside the U.K. had the chance to reach a wider audience as well.
Of course, the admission of American authors does not mean that British authors will be overwhelmed in the listings. Postcolonial authors will still get a chance. And I don’t have such a high opinion of American writing that I believe it will automatically win. I am just disappointed in what seems to be a gimmick by the Booker Prize Foundation to increase the sales of their winners. Isn’t it possible, even is this globalized world, to keep some distinction for diversity? We don’t all need to become a melting pot.