September 18, 2013

Yanks out! Changing the Booker rules will damage British literary culture


Forget about photos like these if American authors come to dominate the Booker Prize

The Booker Prize is not perfect. Anyone who does not have a book shortlisted on any given year can tell you with annoyance just how much (too much) of books media is cannibalised by Booker coverage. Any reader knows to avoid the weekend papers’ review coverage around the time of the shortlist, for fear of phoned-in articles such as this one  from last Saturday’s Guardian Review.

But the news that the Booker is to change its guidelines to allow American authors to be eligible for the prize confused and concerned me. Confused because I hadn’t previously been aware of any desperate need for eligibility to be extended (have American authors been picketing outside the foundation’s offices and nobody knew?) and concerned because the move suggests an inexplicable and radical transformation of the most important fiction prize in Britain and one which has an undeniable history in celebrating, championing and selling British fiction, as well of course fiction from the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth.

Indeed, some commentators have been quick to play the ‘The Booker isn’t really British anyway, what about the Canadians?’ card. But, and not to insult any nation here, but one cannot compare Australian or Canadian entrants with American ones, because we know just how domineering the latter’s cultural output can be, both in size and in style.

Working for Melville House, a part of me is jumping for joy in the knowledge that all our brilliant American authors will now get a chance for the exposure offered by the Booker. However as a member of the British publishing industry and Melville House’s British office, I have seen how difficult it can be for British authors — new and seasoned — to be acquired by publishing houses, for their books to be reviewed and for their book contracts to be renewed when their last book sold modest but not an exceptional number of copies. It is the chance of a Booker longlisting or shortlisting that many editors cling on to when they need to convince everyone else in the imprint to persevere with an author or a novel.

We need only remind ourselves of Hilary Mantel’s writing career before her two Bookers. Her writing has always been extraordinary but it was the Booker that propelled her to the success and phenomenal book sales that her novels deserve. What’s more, as print coverage of books diminishes inch by inch, it has never been harder for literary novels to get the reviews they once expected. A Booker longlisting guarantees coverage twice over, first through reviews, and secondly through news coverage of the award. It also guarantees shop window displays, face-out displays that greet customers as soon as they enter the bookshop and very pleasing book orders.

Scott Pack from HarperCollins’ The Friday Project argued on the Bookseller that, ‘If British, Australian, Canadian, Irish etc. writers carry on writing great books I am not sure what they have to worry about’ but the fact is that many great books are written in Britain every year and they go unnoticed. The Booker has always been a means of allowing all of these books to be read and judged purely for their quality so that even if a book has been overlooked or released by a small press (like last year’s And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt), it may be held up alongside books with the biggest campaigns behind them. And even before this point, knowing this prize exists has been a way of encouraging British writers to start their first or next book, whether or not they want to admit it. In short, it is a way to sustain an aspect of British literary culture. This is going to be harder when we have our slightly louder, much bigger cousin across the pond breathing down the necks of our writers.

And while the number of books a publisher can submit won’t necessarily change, it is already a tricky (and highly secretive) business to decide which two books to submit. Why make a tough process tougher? Are standards not high enough already? And if it is purely to compete with the new Folio Prize, why should literary prizes have to compete anyway? Should the Booker ban male entrants to compete with the Bailey’s Women’s Prize? Should the Pulitzer not now open its doors to British authors?

A final concern is editorial decision-making. It is rather easy for a British editor to buy an American book, become its second editor and do very little close work on it. It is a much more challenging and skilful task for an editor or agent to discover a new author, or for an author to work with the early manuscript from an emerging writer, or to celebrate the final success of an author they have worked with over a very long period of time. Success must feel very different in both cases, but I believe the latter speaks of the strength of the British publishing industry, as well as of the author in question.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.