Yesterday when I heard that the criteria for the Man Booker Prize were going to change, now including Americans in the competition, I actually cursed under my breath. “I’m happy to write about this,” I told my editor, and she wisely saw that this was not a request, but a command. I’m Canadian, and a book nerd, and to put this as Canadian-book-nerd-politely as possible: I find this decision unquestionably insane. Here’s why.
Everyone, I think, is entitled to have some small claim of cultural superiority. Mine is that I was brought up to read things that aren’t American novels. At school, in my local library, I was raised on a diet of Canadian literature that kept my childhood mercifully Philip Roth-free. I read Anne of Green Gables instead of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Adventures of Duddy Kravitz instead of The Grapes of Wrath. We were assigned Alice Munro short stories in school, and one of my high school teachers referred to Margaret Atwood as her “lord and savior” on more than one occasion. (I think she was kidding.)
This was in part the result of an overt cultural policy in place in Canada at the time designed to promote Canadian literature, which until the 1970s only barely existed. It was also, in part, the byproduct of a particularly good time being had among the country’s writers, people like Atwood, and Robertson Davies, and Michael Ondaatje. That we happened with Munro to score this era’s Chekhov was sheer luck, of course. There was no reason to come out of that thinking Canadian literature was the end-all and be-all of literature everywhere, and mostly I didn’t. What I did come out of it thinking was that there was something positive to be had in having a literature that was tangled up with national and political ideals – which is not the same thing, mind, as saying that it was synonymous with those ideals.
This became even clearer as I grew older, and I began to read more British, Scottish, and Irish writing. One way I achieved that, starting in my teens, was to obsess over Booker shortlists. There, I discovered A.S. Byatt, Hilary Mantel, Ian MacEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro, who to the extent anyone truly has a top four favorite novelists would surely be my picks. I wasn’t consciously avoiding Americans, who had been infiltrating my reading lists all along. I had a collection of Babysitters’ Clubs, then V.C. Andrews novels, and worked my way up eventually to that Michael Chabon novel about the superheroes and some Jonathan Lethem. But if I wanted literary writing, I generally gravitated towards Anyone But.
I think I did this mostly because the dose of America I got in the rest of my culture was so overwhelming. I really think the late, great, (Canadian-born) David Rakoff was onto something when he said, of his citizenship application, that:
You can only know this if you grew up in a country directly adjacent to a globally dominating, culturally obliterating economic behemoth, but becoming an American feels like some kind of defeat. Another one bites the dust.
The emphasis is mine. Having now lived in America for some time, it is my conclusion that (many) Americans have no real perception of this global/cultural domination. And that is actually great in some ways because it keeps them from having the occasionally malevolent inferiority about it that Canadians, and sometimes Brits and always the French, do. (Many) Americans get to be optimistic, grandiose, and bombastic on a scale others can only dream of. And that’s valuable.
But the optimistic, the grandiose, and the bombastic aren’t the only things worth valuing in literature. Human beings, and their book-offspring, are made up of other qualities, and those other qualities are valuable too. It’s crude to map them directly onto nations, particularly the kind of teeming-mass-nation-of-immigrants places these countries really are. And yet, my whole point, these four paragraphs preceding, is that there’s a loose correlation between nationality and “literature” worth recognizing.
And we need a certain number of nationally bound literary prizes, I think, to do the work of that recognition.
Literary prizes, of course, are not really about what’s valuable in literature. No one has a definitive answer about just what “literary value” is. So claims that prizes recognize the “best” in literature are just window dressing, the way they sell themselves to readers.
But that’s the rub: literary prizes are valuable marketing tools. They don’t guarantee the longevity or even the ultimate reputation of a book. We just don’t know how to gauge that. They just guarantee sales in the here and now. But that being said, what a prize can do is catapult a book that’s been in the shadows into the current cultural conversation. It can make people feel like they ought to be reading something they’d not otherwise pick up in a bookstore – because the cover isn’t right, or the subject matter isn’t right, or the author isn’t one of the authors they’ve heard of. And as such, it can expand certain minds.
For a long time the Booker managed to do this, even for the most hidebound Americans, in terms of bringing their attention to writing from other parts of the world. For a long time, it was a way of expanding everyone’s mind to include writers in English not raised in one particular stretch of the North American continent. But now, it’ll just be another prize for the “best” in literature that sneakily knows what a contingent and imperfect judgment that is. And that, in my humble and polite opinion, is a goddamn shame.