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



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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.

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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/

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



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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.
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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.

David Grossman Wins the Man Booker International Prize for Best Fiction in Translation


The link below is to an article that takes a look at this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize for Best Fiction in Translation.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/14/israeli-author-david-grossman-wins-man-booker-international-prize

As Man Booker winner Paul Beatty is about to find out, literary celebrity changes everything


Rebecca Braun, Lancaster University

Paul Beatty has won the Man Booker prize, becoming the first American to win the award since it was opened up to authors outside the Commonwealth in 2013. Most won’t yet have heard of the 54-year-old author of The Sellout, a satire of US racial politics. Because if one thing united this year’s shortlist, it was the lack of literary celebrity.

As the Man Booker website itself commented, of the six authors shortlisted, only Levy had even been heard of before in Booker circles. All were on the list on the literary merit of their books. But celebrity such as the Booker changes all this.

Literature is generally held to be the opposite of popular culture, something that requires solitude and sustained engagement with words and ideas beyond the everyday. So its relationship with celebrity, that most visual and ephemeral of phenomena, is in some ways unique.

It is certainly true that even a very famous writer is unlikely to pack out a football stadium, although the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan, coupled with his signature failure to acknowledge it, must make the literary establishment check their assumptions about both literature and celebrity. But what is peculiar about literary celebrity is that it is not about “the literary” at all. It is about our obsessions with the biographical person.

Elena who?

Enter the author. Following the announcement of any major literary prize in the UK and Europe, the immediate focus falls on the author’s biography. In the case of Elena Ferrante, as we have recently seen, this public hunger for the personal can suppress pretty much everything else, including the actual writing. Although Ferrante’s efforts to keep her private person out of the public eye are as extreme as the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti’s distasteful obsession with tracking her down, her dislike of the celebrity machine is shared by the many other authors who also try to shift attention back to their books.

Beatty clung to his after the first awkward minutes during which he foundered on the podium after winning the prize, clearly uncomfortable with having to share his immediate thoughts and emotions with the international media. “Maybe I should talk about the book a bit,” he suggested. But his book will not hide him now. Herta Müller’s claim that it was her books that won the Nobel Prize in 2009 could not do anything to stop speculation about her hairstyle and choice of dress doing the rounds in the international broadsheets.

Beatty will also have to get used to the invariable discussion of the cash, and whether it is really desirable for one author to hit the jackpot at the exclusion of everybody else. Mention of money sullies the literary for some.

All of this could be uncomfortable for Beatty, who told the Booker dinner guests of how he cried with joy in front of readers in Detroit some years back when he read aloud from his work for the first time. He had realised just how perfectly it replicated the language in his head. This touching tale from an author who loves his craft made up for his being, in his own words, “woefully underprepared” for speaking as a celebrity at the gala dinner.

Not so the publishers, who have been working up to this for months and will now take every opportunity they can to push their product with shiny stickers and prime displays, just as the laws of celebrity require. Beatty should expect to have numerous meetings with numerous publicists lined up to expedite sales at home and abroad. He may start to feel a little bit like Beyoncé. Unlike Beyoncé, however, literary celebrity doesn’t travel. This could be his writerly salvation.

Beatty making his winning speech.
John Phillips/PA Wire

Beyond English

Although the English-speaking book market is huge and highly influential, it is still just one geographically-bounded market, and not a very cohesive one at that.

Julian Barnes has a strong following in the UK. But he is not such a big deal in the US, where he is (justifiably) described as particularly British. Jonathan Franzen is an A-list literary celebrity in New York, and he’s pretty famous in the UK, but the further east he travels, the more he is in need of mediators. While still a well-known face in Germany, he mainly goes there to bird watch.

Travelling back the other way, Joël Dicker’s French blockbuster The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair sold 2m copies in Europe, but bombed in the US. Just 13,000 of Penguin’s 125,000 copies sold on its much trumpeted launch, and reviews quickly turned negative. Routinely accosted in his home town of Geneva, he is safe in New York.

Can Beatty take some comfort from these regional quirks that accompany even bestsellers? “I love being lost,” he quipped on the stage as he searched for words. “It’s the only way I get anywhere.” He has been found for English readers, but once his book starts to travel to other places, there are no guarantees that the same piece of writing will arrive as set off. There could be an escape route here.

Readerships are diverse, knowledge and expectations are different, and the more mediators are needed (translators, foreign-language editors, international rights departments), the more the book becomes detached from its biographical author. Some famous authors make it on a global stage, for sure. But there is often remarkably little left of the original author by then.

So here’s a plan for Beatty. He can take the money and settle down to write somewhere where English is not the primary language. He doesn’t have to deny the literary establishment entirely like Bob Dylan, but he could look to put more of the rest of the world on the literary map. Not by selling books there, but by writing them. That would be another kind of sellout – one that might just make people stop and think.

The Conversation

Rebecca Braun, Senior Lecturer in Languages and Cultures, Lancaster University

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

The 2015 Man Booker Longlist Breakdown


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The Man Booker Prize has announced a 2015 longlist featuring 13 novels by authors representing seven nations. The standing list for the £50,000 prize was pared from a selection of 156 books by a panel of five judges, including Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith and Frances Osborne. The shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, September 15th, and the winner of the prize will be made public in a broadcast by the BBC on October 13th.

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