Prize and Prejudice: Do International Book Awards Dilute World Literature?

By Mehta, Diane | Foreign Policy, January-February 2015 | Go to article overview

Prize and Prejudice: Do International Book Awards Dilute World Literature?


Mehta, Diane, Foreign Policy


New Zealander Eleanor Catton's recent neo-Victorian epic, The Luminaries, an 832-page mammoth, has dazzled some critics--especially those who handed her the Man Booker Prize in 2013. But it has exasperated others with its "hocus-pocus" astrology-based structure, its overlapping mysteries, and its archetypal characters of many nationalities. Catton's style is rooted in a history of structurally complex and often globetrotting novels--to some likeable, to others not--including Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Don DeLillo's Underworld, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. But Catton's book underscores what has now become a clear trend: the grandiose, high-concept novel.

Tim Parks, author of Where I'm Reading From, thinks ornate books like Catton's signal the increasingly formulaic high-wire act of what he calls "the dull new global novel." He critiques the Spanish-Argentine writer Andres Neuman's Traveler of the Century and the Briton William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise as "complex literary novels together with the kind of high-tension plot that can attract a wider readership." And he faults prize juries that mistake ambition for quality. "In the long run," he argues, "it seems inevitable that style will align with what can be readily translated more or less into multiple languages and cultural settings, or into a readily intelligible international idiom."

By writing for an international audience, will authors cleanse their prose of the cultural peculiarities that enlighten, fascinate, and move us? Imagine Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice without the provincial protocols of courtship in 19th-century Hertfordshire.

The current shift in the novel dovetails with--and may even respond to--another development: Prestigious English-language book prizes, once limited to writers from a handful of countries, are opening up to worldwide competition. In 2013, when the Man Booker announced it would accept non-Commonwealth books, the decision drew fierce criticism. After all, the prize was designed for quintessentially British and British-inflected writers. Global competition will surely threaten what until now has been a protectionist local game.

The world's writers and publishers are now invested in that game. And two new international prizes for English-language novels were inaugurated in the past few years: the Folio Prize in the United Kingdom and the Windham Campbell awards in the United States. They join the Neustadt, the Impac Dublin, the Nobel, and the Booker International. Unlike most national prizes, they are highly lucrative, awarding from $50,000 on up.

When prizes--profile-raising, sales-enhancing incentives--nudge writers toward an ambitious but less vividly original style, the novel is in a pickle. South African-born Nobel laureate and two-time Man Booker winner J.M. Coetzee acknowledges the concern: "I don't know any writers who write books that are meant simply to win prizes (as opposed to being good books), but I concede that pressure from editors and the example of the kind of books that do win prizes could in some cases have an influence on writers' practice." That said, he observes, "If indeed there is a formula for a prizewinning novel, any judge of integrity would surely be suspicious of a work that does nothing but implement the formula."

But Robin Desser, editorial director at Knopf, sees no evidence that authors choose to write in a global style to sell books. "Readers are global and stories are local, and they've always been local," she emphasizes. Japan's Haruki Murakami sells millions because "there's a hunger for other places and great storytelling." Readers responded enthusiastically to Cutting for Stone by Ethiopian-born Keralite Abraham Verghese, set in large part at an Addis Ababa hospital during Ethiopia's civil war. …

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