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Is the new Booker Prize inclusiveness a Trojan Horse?

September 23, 2013

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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2013 3:02 am

    I know, only some of the authors I listed were novelists — but I hope most readers will concede that at least some of the non-novelists are worth reading

  2. September 23, 2013 7:10 am

    “et cetera”:

    Louisa May Alcott, Ray Bradbury, Pearl S. Buck, Kate Chopin, Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison (let Eliot be British if he likes), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Irving, Gayl Jones, LeRoi Jones, Jack Kerouac, Sue Monk Kidd, Harper Lee, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Bernard Malamud, Vladimir Nabokov, Gloria Naylor, Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Anna Quindlen, Philip Roth, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Amy Tan, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Xu Xi, Steve Yarbrough, Rafi Zabor

  3. September 23, 2013 8:01 pm

    Who are all those guys? Writers? As a young person growing up in England, I don’t think I read anything by any of them, except Mark Twain and a few Eliot poems (but yes, we thought he was one of ours). Since then I have read some Henry James and some Nabokov (but wasn’t he Russian?) But the sad truth is that most of these American authors are almost unknown outside their home country.

  4. September 23, 2013 8:37 pm

    Peter, I was going to challenge you, writing that you must have heard of Hemingway, Lincoln, Jonathan Edwards, Melville (“Moby Dick“), and Poe. But then I looked at the actual syllabuses for A-Level exams in English, and I see that you may very well be right. Very few works by Americans were listed. On the other hand, it does appear that A-level literature students get a massive dose of Shakespeare.

    Very odd, I must say.

    American authors are well represented by the major British “classics” publishers, in particular Oxford U. Press (in its “Oxford World’s Classics”) or Penguin (in its “Penguin Classics”) collection — but of course, the US is economically a much more important market to both OUP and Penguin than Britain and the Commonwealth counties.

    US secondary education is not at all standardized, but at least in my high school, college bound students were expected to take an entire year of British literature (including 20th century British writers), a year of “world literature” (in translation, unfortunately), and a year of American literature.

  5. September 23, 2013 8:44 pm

    I have heard of them, sure, but never read them. Bear in mind that only a small minority take English A-level. Those like myself choosing to study the sciences didn’t usually study English beyond O-level, now GCSE. That’s where I read a few Eliot poems, but nothing else American.

  6. September 23, 2013 11:43 pm

    Peter, even if a student takes the English Literature A-level, she will not necessarily be exposed to American literature. Nonetheless, it seems that American literature has at least some fans in Britain — e.g, Plymouth University sponsored the Moby Dick Big Read. Although, Plymouth U. began its description page by saying:

    Moby-Dick is the great American novel. But it is also the great unread American novel.

    The US does not really have anything quite like A-level examinations (although I suppose one could argue that at one time the “advanced designation” of the New York Regents’ Exam was a bit like the A-level.) The exam which is most frequently compared with A-level exams are the notorious “Advanced Placement Examinations,” and the AP exams have had a devastating effect on high school teaching by turning what might be otherwise engaging courses into breakneck-speed, shallow surveys of various topics. Even then, the comparison is limited, since those AP exams tend to revolve largely around multiple choice questions rather than extended essays.

  7. September 24, 2013 9:15 am

    Plymouth University is spot on. Yes, educated British people have heard of Moby Dick, and would likely name it if asked to name a great American novel. But very few have read it.

  8. September 24, 2013 12:56 pm

    Just because the authors mentioned above aren’t read outside the U.S. (Poe?? Really??) doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be (and probably read more *inside* the U.S, too).

    It’s rather like when folks with extensive liberal arts backgrounds practically brag that they hate math or science. It may be true, but it’s not anything to be proud of, anymore than the reverse would be.

  9. September 24, 2013 2:05 pm

    Nzumel, I agree with you. I am not proud that these American authors are not read. They are of course not unique: in British schools we read very little literature from outside the UK, in English or in translation, except that language students read some literature in the language they study.

    And no, I don’t think I have ever read any Poe.

  10. September 24, 2013 3:03 pm

    A little fact: C. S. Lewis, when he was not yet 18-years-old, wrote the following in a letter to his father –

    I am at present enjoying a new literary find in the shape of Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’, which I got at a venture and found better than I expected: though like De Quincy’s and Southey’s epics, ‘I expect that I enjoy the privilege of being the sole reader of this work’. Talking about books, I hope you noticed the leader in this week’s [Times] Literary Supplement — on Edgar Allen Poe? I never heard such affection and preciosity; the man who thinks the ‘Raven’ tawdry just because it is easily appreciated, and says that in ‘The choice words Poe has touched greater heights than De Quincy’ ought — well, what can we say of him?

    That was the TLS of 22 June, 1916. It seems that some readers are still reading Poe for all that’s worth “across the pond.”

  11. September 24, 2013 4:03 pm

    “still”? That was 97 years ago! There have been so many new books published since then, on both sides of the pond, that it is hardly surprising that only the very best of 19th century literature is being read in the 21st. Whether Poe should be part of that very best is debatable, but presumably most UK English teachers think not.

  12. September 24, 2013 4:12 pm

    We should not be too quick to cast stones — after all, in the early 20th century America was just beginning the process of what would ultimately result in worldwide cultural hegemony. Today, American popular culture can be found everywhere, but 1916, it was still arguably exotic.

    And I must say that even among the educated class in America, few people could answer the question:

    Name three famous Arabic writers since 1700 (or Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Malay or Persian or Tagalog)

    even though intellectuals could easily name many authors who wrote in French, German, Russian, Spanish, etc.

    Indeed, it is rather remarkable: American intellectuals are much more likely to be familiar with (or at least heard of) the writings of Amos Oz or A. B. Yehoshua or S. Agnon or David Grossman than they are to have even heard of Naguib Mahfouz, for example.

  13. September 24, 2013 4:25 pm

    No, I’m not casting stones, Theophrastus. There’s plenty of literary provincialism on this side of the pond, of course.

    Peter, LOL. Did you follow my link on “still”? It’s allusions in the recent TLS to Poe:

    And, not too terribly long ago, The Guardian printed the list produced on “World Book Day [from the] poll conducted by the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), in which librarians around the country were asked the question, ‘Which book should every adult read before they die?'” Look how an American tops the list, ahead of the Bible. And look how many other Americans are on this short, short list.

  14. September 24, 2013 5:57 pm

    I’m still not sure what you are getting at. But surely in recent years TLS has been like OUP and Penguin in catering largely to North American readers. Hence the recent interest in Poe.

  15. September 24, 2013 7:15 pm

    I suppose I’m just surprised. Maybe it’s that the British publishers do cater to us readers in North America that accounts for some of the interest in Poe reflected in the TLS. And yet the now defunct MLA, in Great Britain, did stress to all in the UK that many must-read novels are by authors from the USA. I guess I’m just surprised at how little these trends get support from the education system.


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