New Zealand author Eleanor Catton has become the youngest ever author to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize for English literature. The 28-year old author won for just her second novel, The Luminaries. At 832 pages it is also the longest book to win.
This year’s Man Booker Prize has been prefaced by controversy over the decision to open the competition to any book written in English. The surrounding debate was too often conducted as if it were only American authors who are thus suddenly included.
The Booker Prize was originally open to any “Citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland”. But the bounds of that definition have already been stretched by writers such as this year’s Ruth Ozeki, who, of Chinese and American descent, lives between British Columbia and New York and writes (in this case) about Japanese experience.
But why not? If the Man Booker wants to keep claiming it “rewards the very best book of the year” then surely the wider it casts its net the better, and global diversity is to be welcomed. The real aim of this prize is not to identify a single book of exceptional quality, but to display the variety of what fiction can be.
How far that is achieved is a moot point. One illuminating result of the Man Booker is that the list of past winners shows us what the accepted trends in fiction have been over the past four and a half decades. Just as the prize-winning author ought to be less interesting than the prize-winning book, so the winner of any single year is less interesting than the cumulative effect of the winners’ list since the Booker’s inception.
Read that, and maybe also the shortlists from which those winners were drawn, and you’ll encounter not the “best books” of the last 45 years, but a reflection of what kinds of book were deemed to be best: the styles rewarded, the topics, tones and techniques favoured. In short, a track record of what one section of literate and liberal book-reading society felt they could reward. It is a track record which may well reflect the social and literary anxieties of their moment.
Commonwealth of voices
At the same time, if you look at the nationalities and authors that become part of the record, you may be suddenly reminded of exactly how diverse the Commonwealth still is, how overlooked as an entity and how prone to sidelining one or other of its members in any given year.
This may be a hackneyed point, but when this particular prize-giving is surrounded by chatter about the consequences of opening the award to books by American authors, it is perhaps worth acknowledging that this says more about the eagerness of publishing houses to promote the global nature of their lists than any deep shift in national affiliations of the authors, still less the tenor or quality of the books considered.
Do we need to be concerned about American authors, writing in English and published in the UK joining the fray, when five of this year’s shortlist of six actively participate in the American arts scene in one way or another? All but one participate as cultural advisors or as students or teachers at writing schools and universities (Crace is the only exception; Catton has been a fellow of Iowa’s Writers workshop). If there is any risk to the Commonwealth literary identity as reflected in the books themselves, has it not already been run?
Writers will continue to draw on whatever inspires them. They will write in whatever form and type of English best suits their subject, whether they are influenced by America or not. The loss of the Commonwealth identity (assuming such a thing exists) will be apparent only when surveying that list of prize winners. It will only be apparent when the variety of titles and subjects ceases to surprise - and we instead become aware of a creeping sameness. Something that results not from an ironic return to the erstwhile British Empire of the Americans, but from the ubiquity of electronic media as a way of reading, or more correctly, receiving books.
It may be the Man Booker prize (and there was quite a fuss when that corporate sponsorship began) but this year Apple is also closely involved, allowing you to download podcasts of readings and interviews with the short-listed authors via iTunes. Similarly, the award ceremony was streamed, not just broadcast, and Twitter ensured instant reactions, just as it has encouraged the exchange of constant, quick comments on reading the books ever since the long and then short lists were announced.
Maybe none of this matters. Despite the focus on the winning book, the prize itself has a deeper and wider remit, which is to get the general public reading more and more literary stuff. To that end, the streaming, the controversy about the Americans and even the endless chat in the Twittersphere must all be deemed a mark of its success.
Even if they don’t read books, people are at least talking about them. This year they can talk about one remarked upon for its length, appreciated for its interleaved narrative and written by a thoroughly Commonwealth woman, born in Canada, whose accent reflects her New Zealander identity and whose acceptance speech touched on the gold that has value only when bought and sold and the worth that can be only bestowed.
Such an identity of two islands as well as two countries is befitting for the last winner of the Booker in its solely Commonwealth manifestation. Well done and good luck, Eleanor Catton.