Nothing shatters the mystique of the floating city like seeing a McDonald’s in Venice. But such deflating sights have been the norm for years. American colonization of the world’s economy is complete. This summer in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, we listened to music under a sun-blocking billboard for Netflix’s “Glow.”
That disorienting moment came back to me Wednesday morning when I read the list of finalists for the Man Booker Prize. For the first time, half of the six nominees for Britain's most prestigious literary award are Americans:
“4321,” by Paul Auster (U.S.)
“History of Wolves,” by Emily Fridlund (U.S.)
“Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders (U.S.)
“Exit West,” by Mohsin Hamid (U.K.-Pakistan)
“Elmet” by Fiona Mozley (U.K.)
“Autumn,” by Ali Smith (U.K.)
It’s not that American novelists are suddenly writing better books. No, this U.S. invasion is the result of a controversial adjustment to the prize’s eligibility rules. In 2014, the Booker judges opened their doors to include anyone writing a novel in English. (The prize had previously been limited to novels by authors in the Commonwealth, including Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe.) After that change, two Americans immediately made the shortlist. The next year, Marlon James, a Jamaican writer living in Minnesota, won the prize. In 2016, the American writer Paul Beatty won. This year, an American has a 50/50 chance of being the winner.
Some British writers, notably Booker winner A.S. Byatt, have complained about the way this change in the rules dilutes the prize’s identity and creates an impossible task for the judges. With no criteria except “written in English,” the Booker Prize sinks into an ocean of titles that no panel of readers can credibly survey. But that’s a problem for the Brits to worry about.
As Americans, we should be more concerned about the loss of cultural diversity, about the closure of yet another avenue for us to experience something beyond our own ever-expanding borders. It’s no criticism to say that this year’s finalists by Auster, Fridlund and Saunders are all distinctly American novels. But for any serious reader of fiction in this country, the Americanization of the Booker Prize is a lost opportunity to learn about great books that haven’t already been widely heralded.
As flattering as it is for our nation’s novelists to be invited into the U.K.’s literary arena, Americans don’t need any encouragement to trumpet their own books. As a nation, we’re already depressingly xenophobic when it comes to our reading choices. While bookstores all over the world carry books by Americans, bookstores in the U.S. usually reserve a tiny, dusty shelf called “books in translation.” (So strong is this bias against non-American writers that a New York publisher once told me that she planned to omit “Canadian” from an author’s bio on the jacket flap.)
And besides, American novelists already have prestigious awards reserved just for them, including the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Awards. Opening the Booker up to any work of fiction written in English comes perilously close to creating another bloated monster like the Nobel Prize in literature, an award with such broad standards that it stands for nothing at all.
But literary prizes are conflicted organizations. They want to promote literary excellence, of course, but they also want to promote themselves. In a universe of ever-escalating awards and ever-diminishing attention, every prize is fighting for recognition. What better way to garner more press in the United States than to sprinkle some beloved American names among the finalists.
But that’s a competition with diminishing returns. The Brits need to admit that they made a mistake in 2014. In an effort to broaden the appeal of their most august literary prize, they invited in Americans, who, predictably have taken over. For the good of the Commonwealth — and the United States — the Booker Prize administrators need to stage a literary Brexit.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.