AMERICAN FICTION CARRIES NO KNOWN CONTAMINATING DISEASES

 

A few months ago, there was uproar in the Anglophone world on this side of the Atlantic ocean. Booker had decided to fling its net so wide it is now to include US books for the world’s most prestigious book prize. The Guardian was in a right state, the Irish Times wittered anxiously about it, the Sunday Times had mixed feelings, and for some days it seemed to matter.

But does it matter? In a reversal of the traditional American resistance to anything that threatens Americanism, we now had the spectacle of normally reasonable newspapers and commentators letting a shriek of dismay at the thoughts of the American novel contaminating the pure pool of Booker Prize eligibility with its Baked Beans, Cowboys and Modern Gothic Frontier novels. 

But I wonder if, behind the tut-tutting, there lay a bristling idea that European and Commonwealth cultural offerings = good, while American cultural offerings = questionable, tacky, lurid, and just-what-you’d-expect from the land where Coke and capitalism are the number one value. 

If so, then we are about to have our eyes opened, because the continent of North America remains simultaneously the continent of brave experiment, and robust attention to the ‘values’ of novel-writing. De Lillo, Forde, Auster, Tartt, Easton Ellis, Joyce Carol Oates, Franzen – all familiar names to European readers – are the big fish who have risen to the surface of the book fishpond. But think of what has not yet been discovered from the rich diversity that is America, and why on earth should it too not be eligible for a book prize like the Booker? 

I know those who were dismayed by the decision will say that if the shoe were on the other foot, there would be no question of non-American English speaking writers being included in a Pulitzer line-up, that it’s an all-American prize. There is a distinct sense of ‘they’re going to take ‘our’ prize’ in the air, especially among writers. But in a world where the English language has evolved from early Saxon, moving inexorably throughout England and beyond (by dint of coercive methods some would rather not remember), and in fact been further refined by Americans themselves in an attempt to purify its spelling habits, that’s not really the point. 

The Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Prize) was presented for the first time just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2005. Part of its remit is to draw attention to books beyond national borders, and publishers in Austria and Switzerland are eligible to submit books. Admittedly, in the case of the Booker Prize, it has already transcended national borders and for a long time now, its history is one that was inclusive of all the former British colonies, including Ireland. 

That was problematic for some. Kingsley Amis’s attitude to the Booker was one of stinging disregard for what he referred to as the entries of ‘ethnic’ writers, from Jamaica, India, and wherever the world map was once coloured in red. 

But the days of a purely national prize for the citizen-writers of specific countries may be  numbered. The Camões Prize is awarded annually by the Portuguese National Library Foundation for the best work in Portuguese, but includes entries from Brazil. The Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren is awarded every three years to an author from the Netherlands or Belgium, or more recently, Surinam. In Ireland, the Impac Prize for Literature (financially the richest prize in the world at 100,000 Euro, or in the case of a translated work 75,000 to the author and 25,000 to the translator) includes literature in English from all over the world. It would be disingenuous to say that Impac had not unearthed several literary gems we might not otherwise have discovered since its founding in 1994. Yes, it has had three Irish winners (Colum McCann, Kevin Barry and Colm Toibín, with the prospect of another one fairly soon seeing as we have three of our own in the shortlist line-up) but it has also thrown up the likes of Herta Müller, Orhan Pamuk, and brought attention and sales to unsuccessful nominees, including several from Scandinavia.

The important thing about literary prizes is that they must be seen to be generous in their conception and vision. They must be prizes that include rather than exclude, prizes for work by authors who speak the same lingua franca, and for writers who are citizens of this shifting global state we call planet earth. It does not diminish a prize if it expands its territorial remit – rather, it illuminates core artistic values and belief in literary achievement, by widening the field  to show just what great fiction is capable of. 

Why not allow the Americans to throw their vitality into the mix? It doesn’t mean the end of the Traditional Novel as we think we know it, but it may stir up the slightly complacent European stranglehold on all things seen as ‘cultural’, and open our eyes to the fact that Americans also write good fiction that carries no known contaminating diseases.

 

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