In Thomas Pynchon’s delightful new novel, Bleeding Edge (I very highly recommend it; the book is a quite good and readable detective story, while nonetheless incorporating much of what makes Pynchon a great writer), he tells a story called “The Buddhist Parable of the Burning Coal.” It involves a involves a man standing by a roadside, holding onto the titular burning coal, in a lot of pain, when another fellow comes by. The second man asks the first why he’s holding onto the coal, when it’s obviously hurting him. They have a quick chat about it:
“OK, check it out–––can’t you see how beautiful it is? Lookit, the way it glows? Like, the different colors? And aahhrrhh, shit…”
“But carrying it around in your hand like this, it’s giving you third degree burns, man, couldn’t you like set it down someplace and just look at it?”
“Somebody might take it.”
It’s a funny little story. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that it’s a pretty good metaphor for the recent controversy over changes to the Man Booker Prize, perhaps the most notable British literature award. In short, this year, the committee decided to open the prize to any novel written in English and published in the U.K. As the old prize criteria allowed any novel written in a Commonwealth country, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, the new change seems like its primary effect will be allowing American novels to compete. Critics worry that such a change will saturate the prize’s long and shortlists with American writers, crowding out novelists from places like southern Africa, Canada, and Australia, who benefit greatly from the attention that a Booker nomination can bring–––for example, NoViolet Bulawyo, the first writer nominated from Zimbabwe, whose first novel We Need New Names made the shortlist this year. The new changes also allow a given imprint only one nomination, as opposed to the old limit of two, which could result in publishers nominating works they believe will be financially successful at the expense of younger, less well-known writers. Meanwhile, others, including industry magazine Publishers Weekly, Sophie Hardach at Slate, and the Booker Prize Foundation itself, argue that the changes make the prize more globally inclusive and reflect the growing diversity of the English language.
Both sets of arguments are compelling. While it’s true that English has changed dramatically since the creation of the prize in 1968 (and that the explicit exclusion of the United States is a bit strange), it’s also true that there’s a lot of fantastic literature produced outside of the U.S. and the U.K., which deserves–––and is disproportionately benefitted by–––the recognition of the nomination process. The most salient critique is that which correctly notes the immense power of the U.S. publishing industry. It’s sometimes easy to forget that book printing is a business, with a strange set of marketing hang-ups that it shares with many other industries.
Which brings me back to Pynchon story. The goal of recognizing Commonwealth literature is a great and noble one. Yet it’s important to consider the hands that the coal is currently in. The Booker prize, as far as I can tell, is unusual in that it is the only major national literary award whose funding is primarily derived from a single corporation, the British investment management business Man Group. The Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize are both funded by bequeathments; PEN/Faulkner is administered by the writer’s association International PEN; the French Grand prix du roman is distributed by the Academie française, an arm of the French state.
Viewed in that light, it’s not surprising that the Booker prize is interested in opening itself up to the American publishing industry. Doing so will certainly make the prize more attractive to Americans and to American publishers, who might invest more time (and money) into the prize. The burns, then, are the lost notability from committing exclusively to Commonwealth offers, and the Booker committee decided to drop the coal. While certainly not ideal, it’s not unexpected either; the Booker prize was not the best trust for the goal of recognizing and awarding a (supra)national literary tradition. Perhaps a new prize, one with a different funding structure (say, one created by the Crown, or a non-connected foundation of some sort) could fill the gap left by the Booker prize, and accomplish its goal better and more wholesomely.