Is opening the Man Booker Prize to U.S. writers a bad idea?


Hilary Mantal won last year's Man Booker Prize for her historical novel Bring Up The Bodies. (Reuters)

First aired on Q (20/09/13)
Earlier this week, the trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation announced that in the future, English-language writers from around the world will be eligible for the prestigious literary award. Previously the Man Booker was open only to authors from Britain, Ireland or the Commonwealth countries. Not everyone is applauding the rule change. Writer and critic Philip Hensher who has been shortlisted for the prize (for his 2008 book The Northern Clemency) and has also served as a judge in the competition, is among those who think it's a bad idea.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, he argued that opening the prize to American writers "spells disaster" -- and he also made his case in a recent interview on Q. Henscher was first asked what he thought the trustees were hoping to achieve with this move. "I think they believe that if they open the prize to anything written in the English language, whether by an American, an Australian, an Indian or indeed a Dutchman, they will get a more emphatic, a more triumphant, a more all-conquering winner."

According to Hensher, the problem is that the prize will end up bringing attention to books that are already successful. "U.S. fiction doesn't need more promotion. I love the American fiction, but it doesn't need more promotion," he said, adding that over its 45-year history, the Booker has been very good at promoting "writing from the Commonwealth, from Canadian writers, from Australian writers, from Indian writers" who need more exposure. But with the change, Hensher is concerned that "it will just lead to people who are already very prominent getting first claim on the prize."

He expressed doubt that a book about Indian society by an Indian writer is "going to come at the top of a London publisher's list of what he's going to submit if there are a lot of very widely acclaimed and successful American novels that also need to be submitted." Hensher suggested that the prize will likely turn into "a battle between a prominent British author and a prominent American author. The people that have benefited so much from it in the past, they're going to struggle, I believe."

He went on to point out that the literary world in London is "almost unanimously aghast at this and they don't understand why it's being done, and they don't see the necessity for it to be done." Though Hensher thinks the Man Booker Prize will continue to be influential, he also emphasized that he thinks it has a responsibility to bring attention to lesser known books.

"People forget that when Salman Rushie won the Booker Prize in 1981, no one had ever heard of him. He'd written one completely unheard of novel," he said. "Is the Salman Rushie of the future going to be submitted for the Booker, let alone discovered, let alone rewarded by the Booker, or are we going to have to choose between the most successful novels of the year? I don't really have a lot of optimism about this one."

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