George Saunders is the second American to win the Booker Prize in two years. (ABC RN: Tiger Webb)
For many, George Saunders winning the Man Booker Prize for his first published novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was a no-brainer.
The writer, best known for his darkly satirical short stories, has won extremely high praise (from everyone from Zadie Smith to the late David Foster Wallace) for the majority of his 20 year career.
(Books and Arts)
But for traditionalists, Saunders’s win is a blow — a US author claiming what used to be a British literary award for the second year in a row.
A very British institution
The Man Booker Prize has been awarded annually (bar one exception, since rectified) since 1969 and is considered by many to be the defining institution of Post-War British fiction.
Since its inception, the Booker has been available not only to British subjects, but also to Commonwealth, Irish, South African and (a bit later) Nigerian writers.
As well as cementing the careers of well-known white writers Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis and Hilary Mantel, the prize is notable for recognising the work of writers the likes of India’s Arundhati Roy, New Zealand’s Keri Hulme and Nigeria’s Ben Okri.
Still, critics rightly point out that the list of past winners is still mostly white by a large majority. The prize might be multicultural, but it’s not yet truly representative.
Diversifying or diluting?
The Booker has courted controversy over the years: winning novels have earned descriptors like “execrable”, and the gong itself was dubbed “a pile of crooked nonsense” by former judge AL Kennedy.
But these bust-ups were summarily outdone in 2014 when the prize foundation announced that they were, from that year onward, happy to consider fiction by anyone — regardless of nationality — as long as their book was written in English and published in the UK.
On the surface the change might seem like a prudent reassessment, given the blows dealt to the traditional publishing industry over the last 20 years.
But many, including past winners and notable opinion-sharers AS Byatt and Julian Barnes, were quick to point out that the opening up of the Booker would lead to British and Commonwealth writers being overshadowed by their better-known American counterparts.
US publishing houses are some of the largest in the Western world, and the US has its own literary prizes, so it does seem strange to give US writers another opportunity to shine.
Especially when the Booker’s US counterpart, the Pulitzer, earns its winners just as much respect, and only Americans are eligible.
The ‘American dream’
All those fears have been realised — Lincoln in the Bardo is the second consecutive win for a US writer, after Paul Beatty took home the prize for The Sellout in 2016.
But maybe Saunders’s win is more indicative of political trends outside publishing than it is of an uneven playing field.
Lincoln in the Bardo, a magical realist novel set during the American Civil War, is the second novel about the cultural consequences of the Transatlantic slave trade to win a major literary prize, after Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad took the Pulitzer in April.
A number of novels released in the last 12 months have dealt with the after-effects of African slavery, from Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing to Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.
Perhaps it’s more productive to read Saunders’s win as an example of an industry adapting to a socio-political climate that includes the rise of Black Lives Matter, the end of the Obama era and opposition to Donald Trump, rather than the decline of a British institution.