It is with great sadness that I must mark the passing of a cherished friend: yes, the Booker Prize as we knew it has ceased to be. Once the reserve of novelists from Britain and the Commonwealth, the prize has now gone global. Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation, announced: “We are embracing the freedom of English in its versatility, its vigour, its vitality and its glory wherever it may be. We are abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries.”
I shan’t pretend otherwise – this transformation, this dilution, this sell-out move upsets me greatly. Not only will the novel I might one day write be less likely to make it onto the shortlist (I’ll start it tomorrow, honest!), but it is as if the shape and form of a once familiar friend has now warped out of all recognition. A prize assumes an identity over the years, and this identity has now been scrubbed, renounced even. As Jim Crace says, “I think prizes need to have their own characters, and sometimes those characters are defined by their limitations.”
The Booker Prize in its present, let me say unequivocally, better incarnation does a great service to small publishers and disregarded talent, hugely raising the profiles of the unjustly obscure. Now the Americans will come muscling in, their literary biceps bulging, knocking many worthy commonwealth contenders clear out of the running. I don’t begrudge America its talent, in fact I embrace it, but America has its own powerful infrastructure, its own immense publicity machine and its own prestigious literary awards. The Americans don’t need this prize, whereas we do.
The Booker Prize Foundation Advisory Committee has advised badly, and betrayed the roots, even the raison d’être of the prize.
Pray silence please, for I hear the cortège approaching.