26/10/2016 3:45 PM IST | Updated 26/10/2016 6:12 PM IST

What Does The Booker Prize Mean In A World That's Turning Away From Literary Fiction?


POOL New / Reuters
Winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize Paul Beatty poses with his novel 'The Sellout' at the 2016 Man Booker Prize at The Guildhall on October 25, 2016 in London, England. REUTERS/John Phillips/Pool

The beginning of the end of the Man Booker Prize was predicted by many in 2013, when it was opened out to English-language novels published in the United Kingdom, instead of being restricted to writers from the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe. A popular sentiment among doomsayers was the fear of imminent invasion of the prize by the American novel. America already has the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, apart from several other prestigious prizes, was it too much to ask for it to be left out of the good old Booker?

It took a couple of years, but that dreadful moment did finally arrive. Last evening, Paul Beatty was awarded the Booker this year for his novel, The Sellout. With it, America, the country he comes from, crossed a cultural landmark that has eluded it so far.

I haven't read Beatty's book yet, and although most reviews are favourable, I must say a satire on race relations in America, over which the spectre of Donald Trump looms at the moment, seems like the most obvious choice, almost too neatly topical. Notably, like Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, Beatty's book has received few notices until the Booker. It remains to be seen if it will now transform into a raging bestseller like the former.

I also happen to share the dismay of those who opposed the opening up of the Booker Prize to American writers — though not for patriotic or nationalistic reasons. Inclusivity, in theory, sounds like a capital idea until you get close to it, like many other things. There is a real worry that fiction of a certain kind — most likely which deals with the nuances of local life in settings unfamiliar to the West — would never get the attention and scrutiny it deserves, under the new rules of eligibility for the Booker.

There is an explosion of books now to tell you what to eat, wear, and do with your money, how to get laid or fall in love and out of it.

If writing from, say, South Asia or Africa manages to make a mark globally, it often has to subscribe to, and in rare cases fight, the cliches and prejudices historically perpetuated by authors with overwhelmingly Orientalist views. Popular taste, market economics and cultural politics governing the trends in global publishing make it nearly impossible for those who deviate from the beaten track to emerge out of obscurity. If you want proof of the insidious hand of Western publishing culture, look no further than these book covers of novels by writers from Asia and Africa.

The concern over style and substance must also compel us to confront a bigger demon: the vanishing literary fiction reader. Social scientists and psychologists take the trouble to write scholarly papers, proving the benefits of such reading habits, but are the target readers really persuaded? Reading literary fiction will make you a better person, some of the more desperate headlines scream, but so could watching cat videos on loop on YouTube, some would bet.

Then there are the grim pessimists, who are bent on establishing the contrary. "Reading a short piece of literary fiction does not seem to boost theory of mind," says an American researcher. "Literary fiction did not do any better than popular fiction, expository non-fiction and not any better than reading nothing at all." Same difference, as some of us would say here.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Representative image. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore KK/DY

Yesterday, when news of the publisher of HarperCollins India stepping down after a ten-year stint came out, some commentators read in her move a sign of the times. For the shift in English-language publishing in India is already more than palpable: a triumph of quantity over quality, brevity over ambition, instant gratification over difficulty.

There is an explosion of books now to tell you what to eat, wear, and do with your money, how to get laid or fall in love and out of it. And before you know it, you will be the one wanting to write one — and given the hunger for content in publishing these days, your masterpiece won't be languishing at the back of your drawer, or rather in a corner of your hard drive, for very long. People are now reportedly reading "books" on their phone; soon those digestible nuggets of writing will have to be turned into animated GIFs to match the attention span of the ideal Indian reader — who every publisher in the country is busily trying to woo.

So there you have it. Even the Man Booker Prize will not magically turn a novel into an instant bestseller. If you've read this far, I thank you for enduring my whine, and will let you get on with more interesting stuff on the Internet.


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