Just as the United States has its own prize for the best novel written by an American writer in a given year, the National Book Awards, the UK has had a longstanding tradition of awarding its own best work of fiction with the Man Booker Prize. Introduced in 1969, the prize is every bit as prestigious to the UK as the National Book Award is to the literary community of America, but last year, a rule change allowed not just novels written by UK writers, but works from any Novelist writing in the English language. In 2014, out of the thirteen books long-listed for the award, four of them were written by Americans and six were written by UK authors. In the end, the prize went to Australia’s Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Last week, the longlist for the 2015 honor was revealed. Of the thirteen finalists selected from 156 titles, five of the novels are from American writers, whereas only three were from UK writers. An award that previously was only given to a UK writer has now been dwindled down to a three in thirteen chance. Rounding out the thirteen selections are works hailing from writers of Nigeria, Jamaica, Ireland, New Zealand, and India. An argument can be made that the award has more of a Pultizer Prize type feel to it now, with several distinct regions and cultures of the world being considered for one of the top literary prizes around, but what stands out the most is the number of American writers on this list.
Bill Clegg, Laila Lalami, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, and Hanya Yanagihara are all American, and are all currently in contention, at least until the shortlist is revealed in mid-September, which will likely dwindle the numbers of American writers vying for the prize. The standout for Americans, a surprising one at that, is literary agent Bill Clegg whose debut novel will come out a week before the shortlist is revealed. Did You Ever Have a Family was written over the course of seven years during his free time from representing his clients. His rise and road to recovery from a young literary agent in New York struggling with a crack addiction as shown in Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man has been nothing short of impressive. Still, he says that he will continue his day job while working on his second novel, despite the fact that his own novel is gaining more attention and praise than a lot of the works from writers that he represents. Clegg should be seen as a sleeper to win the prize, but out of the American group, Marilynne Robinson probably has the best chance with Lila.
Regardless of who wins this year’s prize, the committee has shown that they are leaning towards American writers, whether that has been a conscious decision or not. American fiction readers and writers should see this as a compliment to the broad appeal of fiction written by some of our nation’s finest Novelists. It is apparent that instead of just stories that are merely American-centric, these novels have the ability to create an influential reaction from critics and readers overseas as well.
With all of that being said, the Man Booker Prize for UK writers has now been somewhat diluted, and one cannot help but feel as if this is a slight injustice to all of the great writers that are now being snubbed from nomination because of the increased number of participants. Then again, increased competition has the ability to bring out the best in people and their abilities. Perhaps the larger field and the abundance of American writers being recognized, will fire up UK writers and make them fight for their award again.
The Man Booker Award is certainly showing that American writers are stepping outside of the Great American Novel in favor of appealing to a larger audience, in what could be called the Great English Language Novel. Despite the ongoing debate about the opening up of the field, the Man Booker Prize will become even more lauded as the years go on, and could be viewed in the same light as the Pulitzer Prize at some point for fiction writers, or at the very least, a small step away from fiction’s top prize.