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Prize of the Yankees

There’s a new Booker Prize in town, open to Americans—and an anxious backlash in response. Meet the new British literary insecurity.

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Prizes are the new reviews. Prizes now do the old business of literary selection and evaluation, the croupier’s rake that sorts the winners from the losers. We are choking on prizes: At the back of their books, the biographies of famous authors have become nothing more than congested lists of prizes—essentially, an accountant’s happy column of monies received. It is becoming hard to find a writer who has not won a prize.

The last thing we need, you would think, is a new prize, but here comes another one, this time courtesy of the Man Booker Prize for fiction. In addition to the distinguished annual British award, the new Man Booker International Prize will be given every two years, and is open, rather confusingly, to any novelist writing in English or who has been widely translated into English. Too bad for that Czech or Afrikaans novelist who has not yet had the royal summons to appear in English.

The new prize looks harmless enough, and joins other prizes, like the International IMPAC Dublin, also open to international fiction in English. But there is in fact a hidden agenda here on the part of the Booker’s sponsors, a financial-investments company named the Man Group. The annual Booker Prize—the British one—is open to writers from Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth (Australia, India, Canada, and so on). In effect, then, it’s the non-American fiction prize, the one for all English-language fiction that is not American. A negative identity perhaps, but still a doughty and meaningful one.

Ever since it took over the prize’s sponsorship two years ago, the Man Group has been angling to open up the prize to American novelists. When this was floated a couple of years ago, there was a peal of nativist shrieking, and Man retreated. The then-chairman of the judges, Lisa Jardine, complained that American fiction would swamp British fiction, that the Franzens and the Roths would win every time. How could the puny British possibly compete with these ogres? No, no, others said, embarrassed by such timidity. We British are quite capable of holding our own with the Americans. It’s really just a matter of size management: The poor judges would have to read 400 books, the award would lose its definition, and so on.

“Do the British really need all this reassurance? They do.”

So Man regrouped, and has come back with an American plan camouflaged to look like an international one. The group’s chairman, Harvey McGrath, made explicit the American tilt when he let the economic cat out of the literary bag: “We do less in Europe than we do in America, but clearly it’s sponsorship. We are very pleased by the way our profile has been raised [so far],” he told The Guardian. The anxiety of those British protesters is indeed a bit embarrassing. But the sponsors are anxious in their way, too—clearly anxious that the “old,” non-American Booker Prize lacks crucial American heft, that a British and Commonwealth prize doesn’t cut a large-enough figure on the world stage. And only two weeks ago, John Updike, attending a British literary festival, was calming native anxieties. He told an interviewer that the British had nothing to fear from grizzled giants like himself: “I don’t think the Americans would have taken over the Booker Prize,” he purred soothingly. British fiction, he said, was much stronger now. “With the empire coming back to Britain, you have a lot of different kinds of voices.”

Do the British really need all this reassurance? They do. The British have been at furtive literary war with the Americans since modernism. You can find an essay from 1925 by Virginia Woolf in which she concedes that the Americans, like the Elizabethans, have great powers at “coining new words.” But she calls American writing an “expressive ugly vigorous slang,” and hopes that “the English influence may well predominate.” But the English influence didn’t really predominate. Modernism was already a half-American affair, and the triumph of the postwar novel decisively belonged to the Americans, not the British. (To people like Updike, indeed.) It seems that hardly a day goes by when Martin Amis does not remind his compatriots of this mournful datum.

In truth, Updike may be right. The ground is beginning to tilt a little the other way. But old anxieties die hard. Man’s new international prize, then, is a cunning weapon: It lets in everyone, while allowing the British to congratulate themselves that if their fiction is no longer world-size, their language still is.


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