|Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali
Saturday, August 30, 2003 Keep your hands off my Man (Booker Prize)
Yesterday I said I intended to post about the Man Booker Prize. The post was to be about the debate over whether or not American authors should be eligible for the award. I believe they shouldn't be, and last evening I ran into a friend who unwittingly helped make my case.
My friend works for the British High Commission. We were discussing the upcoming European Film Festival, an event put on annually by the European missions in Trinidad. The festival has never been a money-maker; until last year admittance to the films was free. But the missions can no longer afford this, and are now charging for the films, bad news for them since the festival never attracted a mass audience to begin with. I suggested to my friend that if the festival were broadened into an international film festival, with films from Africa, Asia and Latin America, attendance would undoubtedly increase.
"But it's the European Film Festival," he replied.
And there, essentially, is the reason why I think the Man Booker Prize (formerly the Booker Prize) should remain a prize for books from the Commonwealth and Ireland: because it is a prize for books from the Commonwealth and Ireland.
I know, such an argument begs the question; but that's exactly the point. All competitions, whether literary or otherwise, exist to recognise excellence within certain fields, and are in that sense discriminatory. The demarcations are not arbitrary. Different groups exist as a natural fact of life, whether they be by gender, nationality or some other delineation; is it wrong to award excellence according to these groupings? To take a few literary examples: there's the Prix Goncourt, which is for the best in French letters; the Orange Prize, for the best novel by a British woman; and the WH Smith award, which goes to the best first-time British novelist. Would one argue against the thinking behind the awarding of such prizes?
To be sure, many such groupings are decidedly "political", which is often, if not usually, not a good thing. And the Commonwealth is political. But the Commonwealth, however anachronistic one may view it, is no wily-nily born-yesterday organisation. It is in one sense, substantial, and does stand for something, even if only among its own members and only to a certain degree.
But the influence and power of the Commonwealth is not the issue here. The idea of the Commonwealth, of the historical links of its members, is. And so to have a literary prize open to the citizens not just of the United Kingdom, but all of the former Empire that makes up the Commonwealth, is a just recognition of this idea, these links.
The question of merit, of whether or not Philip Roth is better than Ian McEwan, is not the issue. The best of the Commonwealth is the best of the Commonwealth, however "good" or "bad" that may be in any given year. And of course, some years will be better than others; some years may not be very good at all. But that, basically, is the chance you take.
The fact that the Booker has become the most prestigious literary prize worldwide is the main reason I think why Americans--and it's almost only Americans--want to open up the award. Back when it was a fledgling prize, I don't imagine that they were clamouring for its Americanisation. Now they want to get in on it, as with everything else, and economics has dictated that they most likely will (as with everything else).
There are other arguments against allowing American writers in on the Booker, the slippery slope argument being one. Once the Americans are in, why not open it up to all writers, from all countries? Why should the prize be limited to writing only in English? But the other main reason why I think America should stay out of the Booker has to do with reciprocity: would America be willing to allow non-Americans to be eligible for the Pulitzer Prize? I don't think so, and I don't mind. They can have their Pulitzer. Just let the Commonwealth have its Booker.
posted by Jonathan | 10:46 PM 0 comments