Booker winner Eleanor Catton
One's opinions have a funny way of aligning conveniently with one's self-interest. Nevertheless, when I first heard that the Man Booker Prize would be opening up to American writers as of 2014, I was dubious. We Americans do not return the favour; Pulitzers and National Book Awards don't go to Brits. Worse, could American winners dilute the brand, making the Booker less distinctly British?
On the other hand, the Booker hasn't been British. Writers have qualified so long as they were citizens of the Commonwealth — which includes not only cultural outliers like Cameroon, but every English-speaking country except the United States. Exclusion of the Americans has therefore looked churlishly protectionist. Unlike many commentators, I don't fear that the UK's most prestigious literary prize will henceforth be reverse-colonised by manifestly superior, more audacious Great American Novelists. We do trump you 5:1 in sheer population, but many of my own favourite writers hail from the British Isles. There's more than enough virtuosity on this side of the pond to secure the trophy for the home team with some frequency. Whew. Opinion lines mercifully back up with self-interest.
Most of all, though, I'm impressed that anyone cares — about the Booker, or about any literary award for that matter.
Make no mistake, these prizes are roundly benign. They top up writers' advances, which have been shrinking of late, and can wildly increase the sales of a lucky few. Even shortlists can call the public's attention to worthy works that had been neglected. Functioning at their best, awards issue a hitherto unknown talent into the limelight — which is why Hilary Mantel's second Booker was something of a waste, while this year's choice, Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries, was laudably interesting, giving a low-profile 28-year-old a career-changing boost. Gala award ceremonies perk up the calendars of schlubs whose profession involves sitting at home at a desk, and the rising suspense of longlist/shortlist/winner announcement varies the topography of lives otherwise dismally flat. Since we all know that juries are fallible, and the best man or woman doesn't always go home with the cheque, the big-purse prize is a literary Lotto, and all you have to do to buy a ticket is to write a book.