Debating the Man Booker Prize

David Brauner writes:

On the morning of 18th September I took part in a live discussion with the author and critic Philip Hensher on the BBC Breakfast Show, debating the pros and cons of the decision by the Man Booker Prize Committee to throw its doors open to  Anglophone authors of any nationality (though we focused on the implication of admitting American novelists). Although I agree with Mr Hensher’s contention that the new policy might in the short term marginalise British and Commonwealth writers, I believe this risk is outweighed by the potential long-term benefits for our literary culture, and for the Prize itself.

David Brauner

The short-list for this year’s Prize is instructive in this regard: it includes four authors who live in the U.S., including one, Jhumpa Lahiri, whose family moved from there from England when she was just two years old and who is clearly, by any reasonable definition (including her own), an American author. Many of our best authors now live full-time or spend much of their time in the U.S., including Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Martin Amis. Amis it was who said ‘The twentieth-century novel belongs to American writers’ and if anything this has been even more true of the twenty-first century. Speaking generally, contemporary American fiction is more adventurous intellectually, more ambitious thematically, and more exciting stylistically. The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, is fond of saying, when his team have failed to play their usual free-flowing, expressive football, that ‘we played a little bit with the handbrake on’. That is what I feel about most contemporary British fiction: it feels too restrained, too cautious, too inhibited. By contrast, the best American authors are fearless and free-wheeling: this can at times veer into self-indulgence and it is true that some American novels would benefit from some stringent editing, but I would much rather read a flawed, overlong but intermittently brilliant and consistently energetic novel than one that is so tightly controlled that it feels as though it inhabits a sort of literary straitjacket. What it comes down to is this: sentence by sentence, American novels are more compelling. The prose of the best American authors fizzes and crackles; most British fiction, in comparison, seems dull and pedestrian. Whereas American authors are happy to take risks, to tackle large issues and to commit themselves fully to an idea – to have the courage of their convictions, in other words – too many British writers seem to be cripplingly self-conscious and consequently tend to write fiction that seems rather insular and parochial. The exceptions are often those – such as Rushdie and Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro and Monica Ali, Howard Jacobson and Will Self – whose fiction is notably cosmopolitan and/or transnational.


For all these reasons, we should welcome the decision of the Man Booker Prize Committee. Even if its motivations might have been more commercial than aesthetic (I suspect the timing of the announcement was designed to steal the thunder of the Folio Prize, which had been making much of its more inclusive criteria for eligibility), this change now means that the Prize will become much more prestigious and will, with any luck, reverse the widespread sense that the Prize was becoming rather stale. No disrespect to Hilary Mantel, but the fact that she was given the award for the second time in four years (for a sequel to her first winner), speaks volumes for the paucity of last year’s list (her belated success is also somewhat ironic, given that, in my view, her earlier, quirkier novels, such as Fludd and The Giant, O’Brien were superior to those for which she has been recognised). There have been too many mediocre winners in the last decade (has anyone actually wanted to re-read Vernon God Little?!) and the only truly great writers to have won the Prize in the last twenty years have been Peter Carey (an Australian-born but naturalised American author), Margaret Atwood (another North American – Canadian) and J.M. Coetzee (a South-African author who now lives in Australia). If the judging panels don’t play politics and choose the best novels, this will certainly raise the bar and it might even give British fiction the shot in the arm that it needs.

David’s views have been quoted widely in the media:

New York Times, BBC News, The Guardian, The Gulf Times , Warren Fyfe NewsThe Australian and The Day.


About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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