Are British Writers Afraid of a Little Competition?
The historian and writer Lady Antonia Fraser has resigned as a judge for this year's Man Booker Prize for literary fiction, after hearing that, for the first time, U.S. authors will be able to compete. Does she not like the competition?
Fraser explained her decision only by the fact that she hadn't been told in advance about the inclusion of Americans. It's possible that she shares the same dim view of domineering American imperialists as her deceased husband, Harold Pinter, though not necessarily: This controversy is raging across the U.K. literary world.
The Man Booker is a well-regarded prize, with previous winners including Australian Peter Carey, Canadian Margaret Atwood, South African J.M. Coetzee, Indian Arundhati Roy and Briton Ian McEwan, not to mention William Golding, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. It's open to anyone writing in English and published in the U.K., so long as they are citizens of the Commonwealth (read former British empire). So that means pretty much anyone writing in English who isn't a U.S. citizen.
The singer and political activist Melvyn Bragg said the change was a bit like being taken over by a global conglomerate; star literary agent David Godwin warned that this would reduce the ability of U.K. and Commonwealth authors to shine; others have pointed out that the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in the U.S. aren't open to Brits, so why create a one-way street? Author Kate Saunders told her fellow Brits to stop being such "scaredy-cats": Jonathan Franzen won't be there to win every year.
Saunders is right. It's easy to see why the prize organizers want to expand: The U.S. creates a much bigger platform for them, and the book market, like so much else, is becoming global. By including all English speakers, Man Booker could become the most prestigious literary award around.
It's worth thinking about this in terms of the music industry, which has always been thoroughly trans-Atlantic, if not global. Increasingly, U.K. publishers have recognized what British rock musicians and their labels always knew: that the real money is in the much larger U.S. market. The thing to do is invade, and an award that pits Brits and others against Americans will help market books in the U.S.
Just as an example of why the U.S. market matters so much, in the first 24 hours that British author J.K. Rowling's seventh book in the Harry Potter series ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows") went on sale, it sold 8.3 million copies in the U.S. and 2.65 million in the U.K., according to the book's U.K.-based publisher Bloomsbury. Harry Potter is, of course, the Beatles of all book sales and not the stuff of the Man Booker prize, but Harry Potter understates the divide. The number of books sold annually in the U.K. is just 13 percent of the U.S. total. According to market researcher CompaniesandMarkets.com, intense price discounting and the spread of e-books in the U.K. also makes the sale of each book on that side of the pond less profitable than on the other.
Of course, pop music and literature aren't the same (OK, not even close), but they are alike in this way: In both fields, the U.S. is the dominant market, but the U.K. is also a major producer of talent (six of Rolling Stone magazine's top 10 albums of all time are by U.K. bands, for example). With the advent of e-books, the distinction between the U.K. and U.S. markets is becoming even less meaningful.
So would non-U.S. authors be able to hold their own in a ring with Americans? Surely yes -- that list of Booker prize winners would be hard to beat, most of the time. In an open contest, the context and prejudices of the judges would become the decisive factor, meaning that Lady Fraser should stay on and cast her vote if she feels so strongly.
The better question is, why not open the U.S. literary prizes to non-Americans, too? Once the Man Booker has made its turf the English language, the Pulitzer and National Book Award will seem parochial by comparison.
(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)