Booker Goes Global Essay, Research Paper
Booker goes globalProvincial, insular, philistine, conservative: these are some of the epithets The Observer has deployed to characterise the British literary establishment. Occasionally, I have wondered if these terms were not – shall we say? – a trifle exaggerated, a shade unjust. Then along comes the dear old Booker Prize to remind us that, no, such descriptions are, if anything, too generous.The reaction to the new Booker sponsor’s suggestion that American writers should be eligible for the competition has been depressingly parochial, predictably smug, near reactionary and absurdly ill-informed.’A threat to the celebration of our great literary traditions,’ thunders the Times. ‘Will British writers be able to compete with the heavyweights from over there?’ wails the Guardian, adding: ‘The Booker Prize must be saved for the nation.’Hold on a minute. We are talking about English-language fiction’s premier prize, not some Oprahvision Book Contest. More than that, we are talking about novels written in a variety of English that, whether we like it or not, is the universally recognised (and understood) version of our language. It is, moreover, a version that dates back to the days of James I, Shakespeare, Donne and Jonson.Leaving aside the geriatric anti-Americanism of some of the commentary, isn’t the English language now a global phenomenon, spoken in some form by nearly half the planet? Doesn’t the literature of this scattered tongue now find richly distinguished expression in Australia, India, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies and Canada? If we celebrate the literature of the Commonwealth, formerly the Empire, why, perversely, do we exclude the literature of America from consideration?Professor Lisa Jardine, the chair of this year’s Booker panel and an exceedingly gifted cultural controversialist, has weighed in to argue that the ‘voice of the Commonwealth’ will be ‘drowned out’ by the raucous decibels of the American ‘heavyweights’.With the greatest respect to the good professor, I don’t buy that for a minute, any more than I buy the suggestion that, slugging it out, round for round, bruising Jonathan Franzen or headbanging Susan Sontag will ‘outpunch’ Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. Has Jardine ever tried to read a novel by Susan Sontag? Why on earth should British and Commonwealth Booker contenders ‘be overshadowed by the vast canvases created by American heavyweights such as Don DeLillo and Philip Roth’?Leaving aside the mixed metaphor, there are any number of things wrong with this analysis. The essential point is that it flies in the face of the English literary tradition. This, broadly, has been one of self-confident inclusiveness and breezy hospitality towards alien forms.Perhaps the most worrying thing about the reaction to Booker’s announcement is the profound cultural anxiety it exposes at the highest levels of British cultural life. If this debate was happening in France, it might be proper to express fears about ‘Coca-colonialism’ and ‘American cultural imperialism’, but in the global community of the English language, American literature is just one among many voices. For every DeLillo there will be an Ishiguro or a Carey, though it ill serves any of these writers to make such ringside comparisons. If we are playing that game, I seriously doubt that a list of contemporary ‘British contenders’ would not be the equal of their ‘American opponents’.The truth is that all the best writers at work today in the English language, from Belfast to Brisbane, and from Glasgow to the Ganges, are happily steeped in the glories of the American tradition and profoundly influenced by it.Literary London, Edinburgh and New York are suburbs of each other. Each has its own distinct accent and set of cultural references, but each has become mutually reinvigorating. Let’s not forget, too, the great twentieth-century English writers whose work would be unintelligible without a recognition of the American dimension: Auden, Chandler, Isherwood, Wodehouse, Huxley, Greene…Pace the Times, our ‘great literary tradition’, like the language itself, has always been a hybrid. The real surprise about Booker’s trial balloon (not more) is that it has taken so long to be launched. But that’s down to the eagerness of the Booker’s new sponsor (Man Group plc) to exploit the prize’s power to generate column inches.On some corporate top floor in the City, a bunch of suits must be hugging themselves with excitement. This is the kind of coverage that’s beyond their wildest dreams. Who, in the past week, has mentioned the Orange Prize?