Has British literary fiction met its end? You’d think so, if you heard the despairing howls of authors this week. Rumours had been swirling, and now it’s been confirmed: the Man Booker Prize is now open to Americans, and won’t the US crush all before it like the cultural juggernaut it is? How can Brits thrive when population size alone means the Yanks will demolish their chances? And won’t somebody please, please think of the judges (of whom I am one this year)? Before, we were reading an implausible 150 books in only six months. Now, it would surely be 300, 500, 1,000?
It’s not quite as bad as all that. The Man Booker has quashed speculation to reveal that books by Americans still need to be published in the UK if they’re to be considered. In theory, that means that the standard of books submitted should go up. Any book that’s been picked up by first one publisher, and then another on the opposite side of the Atlantic, should have something going for it.
In practice, it means that publishers will have an unimpeded choice: when they look over the books they’re publishing next year, they won’t have to discount Meg Wolitzer or Paul Auster, merely because of their passports. They can simply choose what they believe to be the best book they’ve published, written in English.
The really big change to the Man Booker isn’t the admission of Americans (as people have observed, this year’s shortlist contains three authors who live and work in the US, but were born elsewhere). Rather, it’s that the rules have been changed to favour publishers who have previously succeeded in the Man Booker, to try and rein in ever-spiralling submissions. Having judged the prize this year, I will happily testify that anything which gets the numbers down a bit is a good thing. I gave up my entire social life and a lot of work to get through all those pages, and some books were barely edited competently, let alone written well.
Until now, any publisher or imprint has been allowed to submit two titles, and this has certainly led to times when great books aren’t submitted because a publisher has a surfeit of good stuff coming out. It’s also led to the vexing situation where a publisher with one good book submits an absolute howler alongside it, because they might as well. Around book 120, I really lost my sense of humour about this.
But now, publishers will only be able to submit one book each year, unless they have produced novels that were longlisted in the previous five years. The more longlistings achieved, the more submissions allowed, up to a maximum of four. So while my inner reader cheers at the prospect of more better books in the mix, my inner writer is aware that I now need my small publisher to prefer my book to everything else they’re publishing next year if it’s even to be considered, which is asking a lot. No wonder British authors are worried: their odds just got a little longer.