George Saunders Booker win: why the British shouldn’t be sore at American literary success



File 20171018 32338 qvchm1.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

jannoon028/Shutterstock.com

Andrew Dix, Loughborough University

“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”.

George Saunders with his award.
Man Booker

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.

The ConversationBut 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.

Andrew Dix, Lecturer in American Studies, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Man Booker Prize 2017 Winner is George Saunders


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.’

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/17/man-booker-prize-2017-second-american-author-george-saunders-lincoln-in-the-bardo
https://blog.booktopia.com.au/2017/10/18/george-saunders-wins-2017-man-booker-prize-novel-lincoln-bardo/
https://publishingperspectives.com/2017/10/george-saunders-2017-man-booker-prize-fiction/

Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro shows us the illusion of connection with the world


Jen Webb, University of Canberra

English author Kazuo Ishiguro has won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. For some weeks now, the bookies have been offering odds on the likely winner. Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was front runner earlier this week, followed closely by Japan’s Haruki Murakami. Ishiguro was some way down the list of favourites: a surprise win, no doubt, for the bookies, and one that is likely to generate plenty of discussions and debate.

The commentary about this year’s prize, though, is unlikely to run as hot as it did last year, following the bombshell announcement that Bob Dylan was the new Laureate. With Ishiguro, love him or not, we are unquestionably in the company of a noteworthy writer, one who has been widely honoured. He has been winning literary awards since 1982, when A Pale View of the Hills won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.

Despite this record of success – or perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the current media climate — Ishiguro seems to have been caught unawares by the win. Not unlike Helen Garner’s first response to the email telling her she’d won the Windham-Campbell prize, he thought the announcement of the award was fake news.

This year’s award was based on Ishiguro’s contribution as a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary to the Nobel Academy, added that he is “a writer of great integrity”, one who tackles those complex and enduring themes of “memory, time, and self-delusion”.

Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day.
Goodreads

Personally, I’m delighted with the win. Ishiguro’s novels have helped give shape and texture to my life. An Artist of the Floating World (1986; winner of the Costa Book Award) and Remains of the Day (1989; Booker Prize winner) accompanied me through long insomniac nights. The uncertainty, barely-declared unhappiness and sense of dislocation found in both narrators fitted perfectly with my experience of being a stranger in a strange land. When We Were Orphans (2000), with its awkward misfit narrator and its haunting/haunted location, might be considered his least successful book, but I found all that unresolved guilt and unconfirmed identity both compelling and disturbing.

Never Let Me Go was named as Time Magazine’s Book of the Year in 2005. Its exquisite voice, and exquisitely painful dystopia, seemed to fit perfectly the mood of anxiety threading through that decade, one characterised by both late capitalism and the rapidly changing environment associated with the Anthropocene. And, most recently, The Buried Giant (2015) catapulted readers back to post-Arthurian Britain, weaving narrative threads from across history and treating enduring love and failing memory with equal compassion.

Ishiguro is often described as an author who writes across and between genres, moving from speculative fiction, to crime fiction, to social realism and fantasy. However I don’t find it instructive to pigeonhole his books into generic categories.

Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.
Goodreads

If anything, his writing demonstrates the permeability of the rules of genre. His technical and literary capacity, along with his closely observed — and coldly if tenderly rendered portraits – locate his writing outside formulae or conventions. The worlds he creates, and the characters that people them, are startlingly authentic – an empty term that I don’t like to use, but which feels right in this context.

Alfred Nobel established the prize, in his will, as one that is designed to reward “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. “Ideal” is another of those empty terms, but it seems to me that a writer who has consistently tackled problems of ethical relationships, social responsibility, questions of memory, gaps in meaning and identity, and done it all with a light touch and deep empathy fits that bill.

The ConversationIshiguro’s characters are often hard to love, but easy to care for, and their struggles with “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world” offer ways of seeing and thinking about what lies beneath our own feet.

Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nobel Prize in Literature 2017


The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro. The link below is to an article reporting on the announcement.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/05/kazuo-ishiguro-wins-the-nobel-prize-in-literature

Man Booker: who decides what makes a good book, the experts or the readers?



File 20170907 9573 xf0btm

Pexels

Susan Jones, University of Nottingham

The announcement of the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2017 will certainly encourage many bookworms to catch up with a new set of “must reads”.

This year’s list for the “leading prize for quality fiction in English” includes three debut novelists, as well as previously shortlisted and winning authors. Being shortlisted can lead to a dramatic increase in sales. The winner, announced in October, can also look forward to a £50,000 prize as well as joining a canon which includes Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood.

Awards such as the Man Booker can offer a shortcut to the classics of the future, readily assigned by a panel of people regarded as experts in the field. And for some readers, choosing books from an official selection like the Man Booker shortlist makes it easier to know that what they are reading is deemed “acceptable” by the literary elite.

This is not to say that’s the only reason people enjoy poring over such shortlists. But let’s not pretend that what other people think of what we read isn’t important to many of us. For some, this could even mean going so far as to disguise a guilty pleasure by reading it on an e-reader – making it impossible to judge a book (or the reader) by its cover.

Reading together

Despite reading often being seen as something people do in a room of one’s own, in recent years there has been a big rise in the number of book groups and reading clubs, emphasising the social experience reading can bring.

The success of what researchers have called “mass reading events”, like those led by Oprah Winfrey or Richard and Judy, are testament to the power not only of recommendations from people whose opinions we value, but also of feeling that we’re reading the same things as lots of others.

Book groups have long fulfilled this social function of reading for their many members. Over a cup of tea or glass of wine, people share their thoughts about a book they have read (or at least intend to read), debate its merits and its flaws, and collectively explore what it means to them.

More recently, the proliferation of online book groups has also allowed space for readers to interact over their reading from further afield, often focused on specific genres, or with choices influenced or curated by celebrities or vloggers.

Shared experience

Through my own experience of being part of a community reading group, I have also seen how the act of reading itself is something that brings people together.

Shared reading groups have grown in popularity across the country in recent years. They have been an integral part of the work of the Liverpool based charity, The Reader, which promotes the benefits of reading across different communities. In a range of venues including libraries, health centres, schools, and care homes, members of a shared reading group join together to listen to a story or a poem being read aloud, reading along with a copy of the text if they want to. Members join groups for lots of different reasons – not least because of the impact reading can have on well-being.

Reading with friends.
Shutterstock

Not only do the members of a shared reading group physically meet to listen to the reading, but they also come together through talking about the story or the poem, listening and responding to each other’s interpretations, and working collaboratively to explore what it means to them.

These types of shared experiences are a powerful reminder that the meanings we make from a text are different every time it is read. In this way, reading groups bring people together in the active sharing of interpretation.

The ConversationThose shared readings which are made in the moment sit alongside the “expert” readings of critics and judges as part of the richness of what literature represents to different people. And no doubt as the nights draw in, armed with a new shortlist of titles to get stuck into, reading groups up and down the country will be coming together to read and to work at making meanings of their own.

Susan Jones, Assistant Professor in English Education, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Grief, loss, and a glimmer of hope: Josephine Wilson wins the 2017 Miles Franklin prize for Extinctions


Jen Webb, University of Canberra

Josephine Wilson has won the 2017 Miles Franklin award for her novel Extinctions. Judging panel chair Richard Neville stated Wilson’s novel, “explores ageing, adoption, grief and remorse, empathy and self-centredness”. It takes a skillful and thoughtful novelist to pack so many “big issues” into a single narrative, but Wilson has achieved it, and the novel has won considerable recognition.

Josephine Wilson with her novel Extinctions.
Peter Marko

The Miles Franklin is, arguably, the apogee of Australian literary prizes, and Extinctions is a worthy addition to the list of earlier winners, among a worthy bunch of shortlisted entries.

The novel began its successful life when it was just a manuscript, and won the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award in 2015. Since then it has been enthusiastically reviewed by critics and peers: in the Sydney Morning Herald (by Dorothy Johnston), in the Sydney Review of Books (Roslyn Jolly), in the Australian Book Review (Gillian Dooley), and in pretty well every other review outlet in Australia. It was featured on the ABC Books and Writing show and Wilson has fronted up to a number of literary festivals. I’m confident Extinctions will be set on Australian literature courses across the country.

Wilson has nailed key anxieties and preoccupations that characterise the current moment. Ageing, of course, thanks to the population bulge; cultural loss, especially for members of the Stolen Generations; environmental crisis associated with the Anthropocene (the age in which human impacts have come to dominate Earth); and the conflicts that are at the heart of storytelling – in this case, within the family, and with the self.

The central character, Fred Lothian, is a retired academic engineer, whose specialisation is concrete and Modernist design. He finds himself widowed, estranged from his daughter, avoiding his seriously brain-injured son. He is a damaged and dissatisfied man, hiding in his retirement villa, where every inch of space is cluttered with the material objects he has not been able to discard.

Wilson observes and records all this with a cool eye, and records too the distress, anxieties and ethical struggles faced by the other characters, particularly Fred’s daughter, Caroline. An adopted child (“of course she wasn’t really stolen”, says Fred. “We adopted at the end of that period”), she doesn’t feel able to name herself as Aboriginal, knows she resembles no one in her circle, and fears she is recognised by no one. Compounding this emotional burden, she is researching species extinction for an exhibition she is preparing.

The redeeming element is Jan, Fred’s neighbour at the retirement village. She is, effectively, the positive side of the coin, the mirror of both Fred and Caroline. Her warmth, her direct engagement with Fred’s obdurate misery, and the clarity of her understanding begin to shake loose some of the accreted history around the other characters.

“In the end”, reads the preface to Extinctions, “all is allegory”. But allegory has material effects, and the stories we tell ourselves, and the connections we draw within those stories, have the capacity to lead us to or away from extinction. For much of the book, and reflected in the drawings and other images scattered through it, extinction seems the inevitable conclusion.

The ConversationLet me give Jan the last word, because she delivers what seems to me the coda to the narrative. Watching a child playing on a beach, she reflects: “At that moment, anything was possible”. As the novel draws to its conclusion, that more hopeful premise seems true.

Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Heart-warming, biting, tragic, funny: the Miles Franklin shortlist will move you



File 20170906 9835 191vmdh
Each of the five shortlisted authors for Australia’s prestigious literary prize is a first-time nominee.
Shutterstock

Jen Webb, University of Canberra

The 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner will be announced tonight, but I’m not taking bets on who it’s likely to be. Each shortlisted novel is by a first-time nominee. Each is of satisfyingly high literary quality and very different in voice, logic, focus and story.

But they do have one feature in common: each includes as a key character an author, or authors. I’m not sure I have ever read a shortlist where the protagonists of each volume shared an occupation. Of course all five include heartbreak, loss and death — that is, after all, de rigueur for literary fiction — but the focus on the lives and works of writers, and on narratives about narrative, presents as though the Australian literary community as one turned to look inward, and then wrote down what it saw.

We have a worn out, avant garde novelist (Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn); an ambulance-chasing journalist (An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire); “famous Australian writers” (Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill); and academics in linguistics (Waiting by Philip Salom) and engineering (Extinctions by Josephine Wilson).

Art imitates life

I started with Last Days of Ava Langdon, by poet and novelist Mark O’Flynn. This book, which channels the Australian-New Zealand writer Eve Langley, opens with the rhythm and pulse of a prose poem:

Sound of the sea slapping at the green and greasy legs of pier. The crashing of dishes. A cartoon whale.

This, on the very first page, sets the tone for the rest of the novel, one that vividly renders the glorious Blue Mountains environment (and its small towns with their country values), and the portrait of a writer who might have been, should have been, no longer is.

O’Flynn presents his Langley/Langdon as immensely sympathetic, and stunningly irritating. “All her life”, says the narrator, “has been the pursuit of the perfect line”.

While any writer must surely doff the cap to that pursuit, Ava’s single-mindedness has been more destructive than productive. She valiantly channels Oscar Wilde, refuses to acknowledge that she is ancient and frail, ignores the squalor of her home, and flickers between hope and hopelessness about her writing. She is a damaged person, a dada artist. She has lost her family and friends and she dies alone.

Still, Ava’s imagination (to say nothing of her splendid dress sense) brings a degree of sentience to the world, casting it in a luminous light. O’Flynn’s novel brings to bear a cold but tender gaze on “the last days” of someone who, but for fortune, could have been an extraordinary Australian artist.

Misfits in an unforgiving world

Philip Salom, another poet, gives us Waiting. It relies on the skill of poetic diction and the narrative traction of strong characters, the “looking awry” that so often accompanies mental illness, and the urgency to connect, to find a safe haven in an unforgiving world.

He juxtaposes together two pairs of difficult people to propel the narrative. The first two are Big (a cross-dressing, over-performing “crazy professor”) and his partner Little (quiet, crushed Agnes, the troubled lamb of god). They have effectively fallen out of history and are, Agnes reflects, “two characters in a novel who have no further story”.

The second pair, by contrast, are the inheritors of a further story: designer/landscaper Angus (coincidentally Agnes’ cousin) and the linguist Jasmin. They are creeping by fits and starts toward a relationship, but unlike Big and Little, who cling together for the most part in real intimacy, Jasmin and Angus struggle to connect, given their tendency to compete with each other, and their misunderstandings of each other’s values and professions. For Angus, the physical shaping of the material world is what matters. For Jasmin, it is the socio-political positioning of work that matters.

The novel is set against the increasingly threatening qualities of bushfire in the Australian environment, and the increasingly constrained options for those who do not or cannot fit into middle class conventions. The characters’ stories play out, to an end that promises consolation, at least.

Not so isolated

With Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident, we leave the poets and misfits and return to the “real” world: small-town New South Wales, and the struggle to make a living, maintain an identity, and retain hope for the future.

Chris Rogers, a barmaid and some-time prostitute, is faced with the loss of her beloved younger sister Bella, whose body is found on the side of the road, raped and murdered. May Norman, an ambitious journalist, attaches herself to Chris to report on the story and the unfolding investigation. So far, so crime thriller.

But actually, this is more an analysis of mourning, woven through with a biting critique of the social and legal context in which, in Australia, one woman is murdered each week, on average, by someone close to her. At one point May reflects on yet another appalling story of such violence, and observes:

This had nothing to do with what had happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves…

The unwavering attention paid to violence against women and to the commercial exploitation of suffering renders the title bitterly ironic: all these “isolated incidents” add up to a deeply felt and troubling novel.

Extinctions of all kinds

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions is the winner of Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript prize, so has already made a significant mark on the literary landscape. It offers a tragic portrait of the various ways in which extinction looms — environmental, personal, cultural.

We see the sorrows, indignities and regrets of old age, as viewed through the eyes of retired theoretical engineer Fred Lothian, who fills his home with designer furniture rather than with his family.

We see the heartbreak of a wasted life, in his brilliant son, Callum, who was left with acquired brain injury following a car accident. And we see the struggle for identity in his adopted daughter, Caroline, who researches species extinction and is disconnected from her own Indigenous heritage. Together, these stories present an overwhelming narrative of loss, failure and distress.

But there is the possibility of an alternative in the form of Fred’s neighbour Jan. Though like Fred and his family, she has suffered great loss, she brings a wonderful energy and resilience, and a refusal to resign herself to extinction. Instead, she presses Fred to start over, to find a more productive way to be.

Literary satire

Finally, we come to Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. He sails close to the wind of defamation (were the original authors still alive), unmercifully lampooning the models for his “extraordinary Australian writers”.

Like a supremely confident stand-up comic, he pushes the joke from initial humour through infuriating repetition to helpless laughter. And along the way, he shows impressive knowledge of Australian literary culture, so erudite readers can play the game of “spot the reference”. We see the sexism that runs through literary culture. We revisit the poetry wars— “a knife fight in a phone booth” — in the character of Arthur rhutrA, an author of whom it was said that: “the only constraint he couldn’t overcome was his lack of talent”.

We bump into parallel-universe versions of Ern Malley, Australia’s most infamous literary hoax, and radio characters Dad and Dave. We meet the litigious Stratford, self-proclaimed original author of works plagiarised and made famous by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce.

We are confronted by the rightwing racist Edward Gayle (writer for the journal Quarter) and the communist Francis McVeigh, whose early memory of reading Marx’s Manifesto “terrified me so much I had nightmares for the next six months”. Literary giant after literary giant, publisher after publisher, is kneecapped by these excoriating and hilarious accounts of the players, their work, and the impossibly interwoven lives they lead.

Compassionate voices

There is a surprising degree of compassion in the narrative voice that relates each of these novels, even when they are also characterised by sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued commentary. The characters are damaged — as are most human beings — but (with the exception of some of O’Neill’s writers) they are rarely people of ill will.

The ConversationThe narrators, in each case, maintain the distance required of an objective observer, yet cannot help but record small acts of humanity, the struggle to manage, to be recognised and to recognise others. This makes them, as a group, the most heart-warming selection of shortlisted novels that I have read for some time.

Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award Shortlist


The link below is to an article taking a look at the Miles Franklin Award shortlist for 2017.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/07/miles-franklin-awards-2017-shortlist-reviews-of-the-books-youll-read-next