Is the new Booker Prize inclusiveness a Trojan Horse?
Well, the verdict seems in from across the Commonwealth and the US – including American novels in the Man Booker competition is a bust. In the New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion they could only find one (out of six) contributor who thought it was a good idea. The main complaints seem to be that (a) there are so many more American novels published than all other English novels (and in the US, writing is so professionalized, with specialist MFA programs [such as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop]) that the Americans will simply overwhelm the competition; (b) that America already has too much worldwide cultural influence; and (c) one of the key functions of the Man Booker shortlist and longlist is to highlight books that would otherwise be missed – especially in the US, which tends to be more myopic in its choice of books.
While there are certainly merits to those trio of complaints, I have a different theory.
As the New York Times states, the award has certainly moved middlebrow ever since the Man Group (a multifinancial investment group) took it over in 2002. I think that the Booker Prize Foundation is desperately trying to shore up its reputation – by giving Americans a big snub: because nothing can help shake the middlebrow label faster than associating America with a vast hayseed mentality. Otherwise, why would London black cab drivers seemingly be universally be trained to condescendingly ask, when hearing a distinctly American English accent, “oh, come over for some culture, eh?”
Up until now, the Booker Prize Foundation has been thwarted in its efforts to snub Americans, because its rules clearly (mostly) excluded Americans from competing. But now, with this brilliant Trojan Horse maneuver, the Booker Prize Foundation will be free at last to try to shed its middlebrow image by clearly demonstrating that the land of Melville, Faulkner, Dickinson, Whitman, Hemingway, Henry James, William James, Lincoln, Langston Hughes, Thoreau, T. S. Eliot (although I think the Brits claim him as one of their own), Twain, Angelou, Douglass, Cather, Jonathan Edwards, Kerouac, Hammett, Ozick, Jefferson, O’Neill, Martin King, Toni Morrison, Poe, Raymond Chandler, Chang-Rae Lee, Mencken, et cetera just is incapable of producing a writer of the caliber of, say, Hilary Mantel.