Prize Fight

What does the Booker Prize long-list say about British fiction?

What do Nigeria, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Canada have in common? Not a lot, you might say, but you’d be forgetting that these are all former British colonies. Add another 48 to their number, and you’re looking at the Commonwealth of Nations—a generously named association of states once governed by Britain. Today, being a Commonwealth or Irish citizen will allow a novelist to qualify for Britain’s most coveted literary prize, the Man Booker Prize, now worth $80,000 (or 50,000 pounds). If, however, you write in English and come from the one English-speaking country that thoroughly defeated the British, you are excluded from the competition. * When the new sponsors of the Booker, clearly aware of the commercial potential of the vast American market, announced in March 2002 that it would be opened to U.S. writers by 2004, the British literary establishment responded with fear and dismay. Professor Lisa Jardine, chairman of last year’s judges, said that to include American authors would be “a betrayal of British culture and heritage.” Some of that heritage would seem to consist of insecurity vis-à-vis the quality of writing that America produces: “With someone like [Philip] Roth at his best, I can’t see how an Amis or a McEwan would touch them,” she added.

Luckily for Martin Amis, with American writers still not admitted, he has made this year’s Booker long-list, along with just a handful of known novelists and/or former winners: J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, and Graham Swift. Other big names in contemporary British (or rather Commonwealth) literature have not been so lucky (Peter Carey, J.G. Ballard, Andrew O’Hagan, Peter Ackroyd, Jim Crace, Pat Barker). Instead, 2003 seems to be the year of the moderately known to completely unknown novelist, both in Britain and abroad. Far from bringing America to England, the judges have opted for championing writing from and about obscure English (especially northern) regions: Cumbria, Birmingham, Tyneside, Suffolk. One judge—novelist, biographer, and critic D.J. Taylor—said he hoped the prize would this year be given “to someone—and some—publishing firm—outside the London glamour circuit.” This would sound deeply radical and awfully nice were it not for the fact that last year’s Booker went to an unknown Canadian author, Yann Martel, whose book The Life of Pi was published by an independent Scottish press, Canongate.

Another judge, the philosopher and critic Anthony Grayling (who says that he would oppose an Americanization of the Booker), noted that the predominance of so-called regional voices in this year’s selection was purely accidental. He then revealed his three favorites, although, with all of Britain placing bets on the prize’s outcome, he ought to know that tipping his hand to a journalist this way is worth serious money: “Barbara Trapido, Monica Ali, and Melvyn Bragg.”

These names probably aren’t well-known to Americans, but all three are, in fact, commercially successful and much-read authors. Frankie and Stankie is a “pitch-perfect” teenage-voiced memoir-novel about South Africa in the 1950s. Monica Ali, famous since her appearance on the Granta list of this year’s best young novelists (and the only one to cross over into the Booker domain) depicts, in her first novel, Brick Lane, the complicated life of a Bangladeshi bride in London’s East End. Melvyn Bragg is England’s most famous radio and TV interviewer; according to Anthony Grayling, his novel about a working-class boy’s abandonment of his roots, Crossing the Lines, is “a literary monument.” But does Grayling’s tip really narrow one’s bets? I don’t think so. There is still an intriguing set of novels (many forthcoming), all described by reviewers, publicists, agents, publishers, bookmakers, and friends as “devastatingly good.” Given the large number of unknown newcomers, the Booker has begun to resemble that other big game show, Pop Idol—without a Simon Cowell to declare most entries to be “devastatingly bad.”

The Booker is the annual occasion for national navel-gazing about the state of British fiction. While some judges of the Granta “Best of Young British Novelists” issue were disappointed by the anemic quality of homegrown talent (noting, in fact, that most of the writers selected preferred not to write about contemporary England), the Booker team is sending out far more positive, vigorous signals and is happy to nominate authors who tell personal, local stories well. This could be the year that marks a move to less self-conscious, more secure British writing—and that, in itself, would be a delightful outcome.

And yet: It is crucial to open this very important literary award to all the best writing in the English language—including the United States. * The Booker Prize would then cease to be a tacit celebration of the former British Empire and would come alive with the most powerful and exciting contemporary voices. Even this year’s judges seem to have made a step in the wider direction by including Jonathan Raban, a British émigré writer living in the United States, on the long-list. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, who is tipped to win for the third time this year, has said: “I am not a herald of community or anything else.” Great writing never is.

Correction, Aug. 28, 2003: This article originally stated that citizens of the Republic of Ireland are not eligible for the Booker Prize. In fact, they are eligible, along with UK and Commonwealth citizens. (Return to the beginning of the article.)