Booker Prize 2014: why go international?

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Originally designed to reward novels or short story collections published by British and Commonwealth writers, in contrast to the biennial Man Booker International Prize, the Man Booker Prize (commonly referred to as just ‘The Booker Prize’) has been running since 1969. Last year, the decision was made to broaden the entry requirements to include any book written in English and published in the UK. Given that America, surely one of the biggest contenders, already has its own Pulitzer Prize, the change was hotly debated. With the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist at the beginning of September, controversy has only increased: two of the six have come from American writers and the response has already been largely negative. The question that remains is whether the Booker Prize has suffered by allowing international entry.

At first glance, however, the Booker Prize shortlist seem as varied as ever. Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour deals with internet trolling and impersonation; J by Howard Jacobson is a dystopian novel where two lovers are unable to discuss the past; Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves concentrates on one particular character telling the story of her life; both Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North are historical, the former being set in Calcutta in 1967 whilst the latter is situated in a WWII Japanese prisoner-of-war camp; and How to be Both by Ali Smith straddles the 1460s and the 1960s. It’s clear that breadth of subject matter has not been compromised.

However, if the Booker Prize was aiming for a wider, less westernised shortlist, they could have tried a lot harder – two British writers, two American writers, one Australian writer and one Indian writer living in London. This begs the question why on earth the new regulations were brought in at all. The Booker Prize in 2013 was far more international, with authors from Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland.

Unfortunately for the average reader like you and I, the Booker Prize seems to have lost the plot. The distinctive British entries have been lost, and questions are continually raised about what makes a Booker Prize-winning novel – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example, is a dry and dull read and to this day I still haven’t attempted to read it all. If the shortlist continues to be dominated by authors not from Commonwealth countries, it will be a big shame for that particular community of novelists. The Booker Prize’s distinctiveness needs to be brought back as a unique outlet for outstanding British or Commonwealth work before people stop taking any notice of it.

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