Ever since the Booker prize opened itself up to American writers in 2014, there has been repeated criticism of the excessive influence American authors have exerted on the shortlist. Two have subsequently won the prize while in total 14 have been shortlisted.
So upset were British publishers at the negative consequences for British and Commonwealth writers, from a prize that was once hugely instrumental in bringing lesser known English-writing authors to a lucrative global market, that in 2018 some of them reportedly sent the Booker Foundation a letter complaining that, far from opening up the prize to new voices, allowing in the Americans, who would almost certainly end up dominating, instead risked creating a homogenized literary culture.
Even when last year a Brit did win it, Bernardine Evaristo, for Girl, Women, Other, her skillful exploration of Black British experience through the lives of 12 very different women, she was forced – in a disastrous, rule-breaking decision from the 2019 judging panel – to share it with the far better known Margaret Atwood. (It was hard not to suspect Atwood's novel, the much-hyped Handmaid’s Tale sequel The Testaments, was partly chosen to raise the Booker’s profile in the US.)
Yesterday’s announcement did nothing to quell such suspicions. Three Brits were culled: Hilary Mantel and her concluding instalment in the mighty Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light; debut novelist Sophie Ward's delightfully playful intellectual provocation Love And Other Thought Experiments, which combined philosophy and storytelling to beguiling effect; and Gabriel Krauze's incendiary What They Was, another debut, based on Krauze’s nihilistic years as a member of a south Kilburn gang.
As a result, this year the Booker Prize has taken on the familiar feel of Wimbledon, with all our promising young players dropping out as soon as the pressure hots up. It leaves just Douglas Stuart and his truly excellent, semi-autobiographical debut Shuggie Bain, about a young gay boy growing up with his alcoholic mother in economically decimated Eighties Scotland, to fly the flag for Britain. Except, it doesn't quite: Stuart, who was born in Scotland, has lived in America since 2001 and has dual American citizenship. So, make that half a flag then.
Compare this to the fate of the Americans. Nine American and dual American novelists made the longlist, and five of them, if you include Stuart, remain in the running for the £50,000 prize – which will be announced in November.
Two of these novels are set in America – The New Wilderness, a blackly funny environmental dystopia by Diane Cook, and Real Life, an exquisitely written meditation on race and sexuality by first time novelist Brandon Taylor. The other two, The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste, and Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, are set respectively in 1930s Ethiopia and present day India. (The fifth, This Mournable Body by the Harare-based novelist Tsitsi Dangarema is set in modern Zimbabwe.)
All five novels travel far beyond geographical borders, of course, telling globally resonant stories about race, history, class and gender and offer plenty of reading discoveries for British readers. Yet at the same time it's hard not to rue the waning presence of British and Commonwealth writers on a prize once revered for its ability to both celebrate and reinforce the distinctiveness of British literary culture. I admired many books on the longlist, but I struggle to argue that those on the shortlist blaze with the same formal ingenuity as Sophie Ward's Love and Other Thought Experiments or deploy a sit-up-and listen narrative voice to compare with that of Gabriel Krauze.
“The Man Booker used to provide a point of focus each year for British and Commonwealth fiction, a sense that this had some identity-in-difference,” said the novelist Tessa Hadley in 2018. “Now, it’s as though we’re perceived, and perceive ourselves, as only a subset of U.S. fiction, lost in its margins.”
Book prizes exist for many reasons, of course, but one reason is their power to bring to the attention of readers novels they may have otherwise not read. Thanks to the Booker this year, British readers will be introduced to American novelists they may not have heard of. But few American novelists will be discovering new British voices. Not for the first time since 2014, British writers have lost the chance to make themselves heard by the biggest book market in the world.
The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton)
A treacherous mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of this slick, acidic feminist debut, set in modern-day India.
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)
The concluding instalment in a trilogy that began with 1988’s Nervous Condition tracks the implosion of post-colonial Zimbabwe through the prism of its morally ambiguous narrator Tambu as she tries to fight her way out of poverty.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld)
Environmental apocalypse prompts a group of volunteers to take their chances in America’s last remaining wilderness in this blackly funny, unflinching dystopia.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books)
Taylor reboots the campus novel with this excellent examination of race and sexuality, told from the perspective of a queer black graduate at a Midwestern university.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate)
Mengiste’s self-consciously epic novel brings to light the overlooked story of the Ethiopian women who fought against the 1935 Italian invasion but gets bogged down in a stew of portentous prose.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador)
A heart-wrenching novel that combines stark descriptions of post-industrial Scotland with the story of a young boy’s unswerving loyalty to his alcoholic mother, Agnes. A contender to win outright. CA