I am someone who reads, teaches, and writes about contemporary American fiction for a living. Knowing this, you might expect that fresh, experimental novels would constantly be arriving on my desk, that I would be inundated with literary innovation.
But it is in fact rare to come across a book that does something genuinely new and startling with the form of the novel, a form with a long and distinguished history. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which last night won the 2017 Booker Prize, is that rare kind of book. I had read all of Saunders’s short fiction collections, as well as a great many interviews and essays, before opening his first novel. Yet despite what should have been ideal preparation, I was unprepared for what I found there.
As any student of American history knows, the ostensible subject of Lincoln in the Bardo is the most revered of all US presidents. Abraham Lincoln was an autodidact who rose to fame from an inauspicious backwoods upbringing. He became president at what remains the most fraught moment in American history. He led the north to victory in the Civil War, and abolished slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. He thought like a legal scholar but projected the empathy of a statesman. His speeches are among the greatest ever made by a politician. And he was assassinated as the war drew to a close, ensuring his legacy could not be tarnished by any future descent from the height of his powers.
Lincoln is also one of the most written about men in history, a subject of endless fascination. He has been explored by countless scholars, imagined by myriad writers, embodied by numerous actors on stage and screen. How then to write about Lincoln in a new way, to imagine not only the man himself but all he has come to represent in and for American culture?
Lincoln in the Bardo answers this question in two surprising ways. First, Saunders does not focus his primary attention on Lincoln, but on the spirits who inhabit the cemetery in which his 11-year-old son Willie has been buried. Reading the novel’s opening line – “On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen” – we initially assume that we are hearing the voice of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps coming to us from the mysterious space of the bardo, the realm in Buddhist mythology that lies between death and rebirth.
It soon becomes clear, however, that the facts do not fit with this reading, and nor does the tone. On the third page, we discover that the speaker is one “hans vollman”, in conversation with someone called “roger bevins iii”. These are not famous men, nor are they taken up with famous acts. They are discussing the fatal accident experienced by vollmann when he was hit by a beam while in the first flush of sexual arousal with his virgin bride. Echoing the setting and tone of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Irish-language classic Cré na Cille, Lincoln in the Bardo begins like a bawdy black comedy.
In building a fictional world from this unexpected opening, the second key decision Saunders makes is to refuse to do what writers of historical fiction have always done, which is to conceal the sources of their research and imagine their subject fresh onto the page. Instead, Saunders quotes a wide range of scholarly passages verbatim, attributing the quotations to their author and text.
These passages are drawn from what historians call primary sources (letters and memoirs from Lincoln’s contemporaries) and secondary sources (scholarly accounts of Lincoln in the 150+ years since his death). Most of these sources are real, some are invented, and it’s not always clear which is which. The result is a novel that powerfully transmits the cumulative and collective effort to write history, to do justice to the past and what it means.
A democracy of contradictions
The mix of these two registers – the comic and the scholarly – shouldn’t work, but it does. Once the reader has settled into the rhythm of alternating chapters dealing with the chaotic world of the spirits and the more sober (but sometimes equally peculiar) scholarship on Lincoln, Saunders’s project gains clarity, purpose and power. Populated with a multitude of voices, the novel addresses the great faultlines of American democracy – race, gender, wealth, sexuality – while keeping its eye firmly on the common ground its characters share in their inevitable confrontation with life and death.
In a creative writing masterclass with Saunders that I attended earlier this year at the University of Liverpool, the author outlined his vision of literary stories as “active systems of contradiction”. In mixing together what we usually think of as opposites – tragedy and comedy, high rhetoric and bawdy farce, private grief and political action, the individual and the collective – stories can challenge our sense that some things must be kept apart. We come to see that these apparent opposites are in fact different faces of a fundamental unity. This is the unity that underpins our connection to one another in a shared world.
In writing Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders couldn’t have known how directly his themes would speak to an America and a world in which contradictions are becoming increasingly stark and oppositions are being set in stone. The Booker Prize jury has done us a favour by drawing attention to a book that tries to forge a unity among opposites in the most surprising ways.
Despite its origins in grief and mourning, Saunders’s message is a refreshingly hopeful one. We can only hope the message is heard by those whose ears it needs to reach.
“In the four quarters of the globe,” asked the British writer and cleric Sydney Smith in 1820: “Who reads an American book?” Smith was a career eccentric, known for odd sayings and doings, such as wearing a self-designed tin helmet as a defence against rheumatism. However, his scorn about the impoverished state of literature in the upstart nation across the Atlantic was no mere individual fancy, but a judgement backed by his nation’s sense of cultural superiority.
But pose the same question now, almost exactly 200 years later, and such complacency is hardly the response you’re likely to get. The most esteemed British literary prize, after all, has now been awarded to an American author two years running.
American writer George Saunders’ victory in the The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo, follows on from US novelist Paul Beatty’s 2016 win for The Sellout. Fears of the Americanisation of this piece of British literary heritage are likely to be renewed. Saunders and Beatty face being seen as the high-cultural wing of an ongoing transatlantic takeover of national life that recently took more bone-crushing form in the series of NFL fixtures in London.
Changing the rules
Worries about precisely such literary colonisation by the United States were voiced, in fact, when the organisers of the Booker changed its eligibility rules in 2013. Formerly a prize only for novelists of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth, with winners including such non-UK citizens as Nadine Gordimer and John Banville, the parameters were altered so as to make the language of composition itself the key criterion. The new rules invited submissions of “any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK.”
A S Byatt, a former judge as well as winner, said at the time she feared such an expansion of the field would result in “good work” going unrecognised. Her qualms were based not on nationalistic unease but in the spectre of unmanageable piles of novels to be sifted. But for literary scholar John Mullan, the risk of the rule change was indeed that the Booker would decline into a series of spectacular US/UK faceoffs. He imagined the new Booker as:
A Ryder Cup of Literature … Toni Morrison versus Hilary Mantel, or Jonathan Franzen against Ian McEwan.
Nevertheless, it is not as if the Booker’s previous criteria for eligibility were beyond criticism. How convincing a defence can be assembled for a prize whose original geographical coverage mapped exactly onto that of Britain’s recent colonial and imperial dominance? These embarrassing parallels were pointedly addressed in 1972 by John Berger, also a Booker winner. On being awarded the prize for G., he remarked that the sponsor, Booker McConnell, had derived much of its wealth from “exploitation” during “extensive trading … in the Caribbean for over 130 years”.
Novels without borders
If writers in English from Durban had always been eligible for the Booker, then why not those from Denver? If Delhi, why not Detroit? While the organisers’ announcement in 2013 triggered expressions of anxiety in the UK that the novelists of Hampstead would be ill-equipped to compete with those from Harlem, others welcomed the prize’s reimagining so as to include writers in English from beyond Britain’s recently relinquished imperial citadels. As the Scottish author A L Kennedy said: fiction is “deeply international, deeply humane. It has no borders. It’s lovely that the Booker is reaching out”.
There are striking affinities, in fact, between Kennedy’s rhetoric and that of George Saunders in his acceptance speech after winning for Lincoln in the Bardo. His novel’s subject could not be more closely affiliated with the national narratives and icons of the US: its key figure, of course, is the grieving President Lincoln. Nevertheless, Saunders’ model of literary composition and reception remains resolutely non-jingoistic:
Well this tonight is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, it is activist culture.
Two responses, perhaps, are possible in the face of nationalistic concern that the Americans are taking over British literary prizes.
The first is to recall more of Berger’s wise words in what was as much a speech of refusal as acceptance in 1972. Even at a time when coverage of the prize was modest, with the only media “platform” provided by a few broadsheet papers, Berger complained about “the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers”. The task now, perhaps, is to extricate Saunders, and Beatty before him, from conversations about their passports and instead to give their thematically challenging and formally inventive fictions the serious attention they deserve.
But a second possible response to Saunders’ victory may offer a better cure for the prize envy of the smaller-minded British reader, currently sore at US literary success. Yes, Saunders may have won the Booker. But in Kazuo Ishiguro, Britain currently has the holder of the biggest literary trophy of all.
Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.
In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.
In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).
A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.
A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.
But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.
Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.
These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.
Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.
Reframing the narrative
The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.
For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.
Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.
Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.
There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.
All literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at how to avoid a reading slump.
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The links below are to articles reporting on George Saunders as the winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, for his novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’
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