Monday, September 16, 2013

Yankee Doodle Booker

You write one post about the Booker Prize, and then something comes along that makes you have to write another. It was reported in the Sunday Times (behind its paywall) that the Booker will accept American fiction from next year. Still no official word, but the other papers have got behind it. For years I bemoaned the Booker's irrelevance; not just because of its self-serving denial of the vibrancy of American fiction, but its reluctance to list any novels that had a hint of Americanisation about them. At least that's what it seemed as Martin Amis found only his untypical time travel novel "Time's Arrow" making the shortlist. Booker books were set in the Raj, or Hampstead drawing room; anywhere it seemed other than the contemporary world as described by American fiction.

For much of the 80s and 90s, love it or hate it, the Booker had some kind of relevance, even despite the anti-American stance meaning it had one hand behind its back. There were enough contemporary giants in Canada, Australian, UK, Ireland, and increasingly India, to make its quirky qualification not really a problem. It may have to avoid Philip Roth's sublime "American Pastoral" (it made up for it with giving him the international Booker award a few years later), but in its last purple patch - 1997-2002 - it could award Atwood, Carey, McEwan and Coetzee the awards in subsequent years, if not (in the case of McEwan) for one of their better books; but also find startling one-offs such as Arundhati Roy and Yann Martel, the sort of books whose uniqueness would shine through a prize competition like this.

Since then, its often seemed that every year's panel is struggling with a range of broadly similar quality books, by broadly similar writers; occasionally going for the left field choice (DBC Pierre's excellent "Vernon God Little") but more often finding lesser books from the oft-mentioned, such as Julian Barnes' playful but slight "Sense of an Ending" and Howard Jabobsen's underwhelming "The Finkler Question."

There have been good, important books the last 15 years: A. L. Kennedy's "Day", David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet", Will Self's "Book of Dave", Tom McCarthy's "Remainder", Coetzee's "Summertime", Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life", China Mieville's "The City and the City", David Peace's "The Damned United", Magnus Mills' "Three to see the King", Nicola Barker's "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Wide Open" and "Darkmans", Martin Amis's "Night Train", Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way", Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" among others, and occasionally they've made the Booker short and longlists - that list strikes me as the equivalent of an American list I could make from the same period - yet there's been a hopelessness about the Booker over the last few years: no longer certain who the big names are (and often over-indulging a generation that has been publishing since the seventies and early eighties), nor sure what the lines are between genre fiction, popular fiction and the more interesting work that often excites other young and upcoming writers.

The irony is that American fiction has its own issues of late: that the "big guns" are one by one becoming irrelevant or dying; so that late career peaks by DeLillo and Roth are matched only by late career troughs from Updike or Wolfe. The next generation (or next but one generation) of McInerney, Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, Denis Johnson, Foster Wallis have sometimes looked unable to match the fireworks of their earlier work.

Reading the Granta "Best of Young American novelists" there seemed to be a consolidation into a kind of middle-brow, world-spanning but world-weary fiction that would seem recognisable to anyone familiar with British fiction since at least the seventies: well written books that were conservative and consensual, even when their subject matter was ostensibly vast. One can still go to America for confidence and style (think A.M. Homes, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Safran Foer, David Eggars, Junot Diaz) but whether its the lack of specific identity (so many writers seem to have a CV that reads born in X, educated in Y, post-grad in Z, writer-in-residence in A, B and C) or a shrinking of ambition, my sense is that the US is no longer dominant in the way it once was.

What does that leave us for a British+ prize? The British literary scene has never been homogenous: a writing just of these Islands would leave out too much (or need to co-opt too many: Conrad, Ford/Hueffer, James, Mansfield... or later, Lessing, Gordimer, Coetzee, Atwood, Rushdie) but the absurdity of opening up to the Americans now is that the somewhat unique nature of the Booker prize - our only novel prize with genuine world standing - could easily lose its uniqueness. For if an American writer wins next year, then why on earth weren't we able to choose "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan last year, or any other number in the past. It almost feels like looking at those sporting records where there's an asterisk against the name as Ben Johnson or Lance Armstrong has been exiled from the record books. Winning the Booker might suddenly feel a bit like that; particularly if in the first flush of American entrants, we end up with a number of winners.

The funny thing is about the Booker that its always tried to sneak in a few Americans under the hood, and it might be that this year the Booker qualification of several writers is so tenuous that it would hardly make much difference. I think if this had been done 15, 20 or 25 years ago it would have made a lot of sense: but in a prize-rich world (and with the International Booker to boot) it seems an odd time to be devaluing the brand; never mind the logistics of letting in five, ten, fifty, a hundred American books to be read by the already over-stretched judges. The full story of the change isn't out yet, so let's wait and see... I kind of know that as a judge on an award you'll only ever go for the best books that are put in front of you; yet there must be a sense as well that you don't want to get it wrong and miss shortlisting the future classic.

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