Robert Frost famously said that writing [poetry] without form is like playing tennis with the net down, or something to that effect, and this saying has been on my mind ever since hearing about the change in the MAN Booker Prize rules. For a while now I have been following the MAN Booker Prize, and I had been hoping to make an annual feature of the MAN Booker Prize listed books in this very blog. But the recent announcement has left me feeling quite disenfranchised with the prize. Which is weird, really. After all, it’s not my prize, I am not associated with it in any way and the odds that I’ll ever write anything that could be in the running for it are so astronomical that there probably isn’t a number you could write in your lifetime that would represent it. Still, I feel let down.
Many of the newspapers have focused on the fact that the change in rules means that American writers are now in the running for the prize, and there’s been a lot of emphasis of this point as though there is such a slim possibility that a British or Commonwealth writer could compete with the Americans that we might as well call it the Washington prize. Or the Philip Roth prize, perhaps (though Roth leaves me totally cold, I really don’t understand the almost gleeful excitement there. Now DeLillo...that’s a different story). I am not sure where this terrible sense of inadequacy comes from. There are, indeed, many great writers from America as there are equally many great writers from UK and France and Brazil and China and Japan and so on including the vast and varied nations of the Commonwealth. It is wonderful to be able to celebrate the amazing talent that is out there in this ever-shrinking world and the idea that a literature prize could seek out the best book written in a single year is quite an exciting prospect. But that’s not what they’re doing with the MAN Booker prize. They’re not interested in finding the best book written in the world (cue Jeremy Clarkson impression), only the best book written in the English speaking world.
This is where that little phrase sticks in my head. One of the things I liked about the MAN Booker prize was that it was limited. The value of having limits is often underestimated and yet limits can encourage innovation, creative thinking; limits are the stuff that make life challenging. It made it interesting that the prize only applied to British and Commonwealth writers, and this limitation has opened my eyes to some writers I might not otherwise have encountered. Of course it doesn’t really matter what the nationality of the writer is, nationality is only a story we tell ourselves anyway, but the limitation allowed the prize to be focused in a way which could make its listings surprising and innovative. In making this small change, to focus on the best writing in the English speaking world, the MAN Booker prize is letting the net down just a little, not enough that you could make it into a different and perhaps more exciting game, but enough to spoil it. I understand, and to some measure support, the MAN Booker team’s attempt to make the prize more global, to position itself as the pinnacle prize in the literary world. But that’s not what they’ve done. In limiting their extension to books written in English it makes it look like a cynical attempt to open the doors to American writers only, as though there is something important and terrible about their omission as opposed to the omission of Chinese or Chilean writers, and it also leaves me asking the question: why? And I can’t help but think that there’s cash somewhere at the bottom of this decision, that it is a marketing strategy, and as a reader and lover of literature that feels somehow intrinsically wrong. Or perhaps I am just paranoid.
I love books. I love discovering new writers. Over the years, the MAN Booker prize has helped me to do that. I can’t help but wonder whether this new MAN Booker prize will continue to do that or merely promote the interests of already known names, that the list will become less surprising and less innovative, and infinitely more predictable. What I do know is this: the net is down, the game is spoiled, and I no longer feel inclined to play. I know this disappointment is both silly and pointless; I know that my views affect the MAN Booker prize not the tiniest bit. I still feel like something powerful has been lost, and that's a shame. From now on I will need to look elsewhere for my new and wondrous writers. Perhaps that is a good thing.