The link below is to an article that takes a look at the call for US authors to not be included in the Man Booker Prize.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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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