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Man Booker Prize 2016: A demi-hypocrisy

Why is a literary award as big as the Man Booker Prize unwilling to accept books published outside of the UK?

The 2016 Man Booker Prize, arguably the biggest literary prize of the English language, was awarded this year to American author, Paul Beatty. ‘The Sellout’ saw off a shortlist containing ‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy, ‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet, ‘Eilleen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh, ‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay and ‘Do Not Say We have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien.

Beatty is the first American winner of the prize following a change to the rules merely three years ago. Previously, only writers from the UK and Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe were eligible.

Raised in LA before moving to New York in his 20s, Beatty, has published three other novels and two collections of poetry. Amanda Foreman, Chair of the five judge panel, stated that ‘The Sellout’ was a “unanimous” choice. She went on to elaborate that the novel, “plunges into the heart of contemporary American society with absolutely savage wit of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain”.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2016
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2016

Narrated by African-American ‘Bonbon’, a resident of the town of Dickens situated in Los Angeles County, the novel explores America’s racial history. The narrative is told in retrospective as the opening of the novel unfolds in searing prose. Bonbon, is to be tried in the Supreme Court for attempting to reinstitute slavery and segregation in the local high school as a means of bringing about civic order. The satire on contemporary American society is offset by the novel’s depiction of the County’s decision to remove Dickens from the map due to embarrassments over its history and the unjust shooting of Bonbon’s father. These two events conjure contemporary issues: the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ and the Black Lives Matter movement. One desires the respect for absence of self and history while the other desires the respect for presence of self and history. Beatty’s book meets at the intersection of these opposing concepts, and unravels the satirical complications of developing an ideological direction for a nation which has ongoing civil rights campaigns yet has an African-American President.

However, we perhaps wonder if post-Brexit Britain has swept for a moral licence for its own fractious increasingly migrant-ambivalent society.

The Man Booker Prize rules stipulate that:

“Any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK (see 1b. below) is eligible”.

As it stands only books published through a UK publisher are eligible to compete. These have included Oneworld Publications, publishers of the last two winning titles. It means, however, that the Man Booker Prize is enforcing a border patrol on those titles published in English outside of the UK. This is a major issue for independent publishers such as Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen of Tramp Press who, writing in The Irish Times 01/08/2016, elaborate:

“…it empowers the world’s largest and most powerful publishers to engage, while sidelining independent publishers that don’t happen to be based in the UK.

Every big publisher (Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, publishers that have headquarters in FranceGermany and the US) has acquired Britain-based imprints. For them, submitting work for one of the most important literary prizes in the world isn’t a problem”.

The Man Booker Prize is attempting to have its cake and eat it too. On one hand it is able to comment on global geopolitical affairs as it raises the banner for liberty and tolerance internationally, yet on the other it discriminates against those who can not apply.

‘The Sellout’, according to Foreman, is “really a novel for our times”. It is timely to recognise racism and discrimination. But the Man Booker’s exclusivist demi-hypocrisy underpins, as yet unwritten, satire.

By Matthew Farrelly