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Observation Deck

Prize and Prejudice

Do international book awards dilute world literature?


New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s recent neo-Victorian epic, The Luminaries, an 832-page mammoth, has dazzled some critics — especially those who handed her the Man Booker Prize in 2013. But it has exasperated others with its “hocus-pocus” astrology based structure, its overlapping mysteries, and its archetypal characters of many nationalities. Catton’s style is rooted in a history of structurally complex and often globetrotting novels — to some likeable, to others not — including Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. But Catton’s book underscores what has now become a clear trend: the grandiose, high concept novel.

Tim Parks, author of Where I’m Reading From, thinks ornate books like Catton’s signal the increasingly formulaic high-wire act of what he calls “the dull new global novel.” He critiques the Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century and the Briton William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise as “complex literary novels together with the kind of high-tension plot that can attract a wider readership.” And he faults prize juries that mistake ambition for quality. “In the long run,” he argues, “it seems inevitable that style will align with what can be readily translated more or less into multiple languages and cultural settings, or into a readily intelligible international idiom.”

By writing for an international audience, will authors cleanse their prose of the cultural peculiarities that enlighten, fascinate, and move us? Imagine Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice without the provincial protocols of courtship in 19th-century Hertfordshire.

The current shift in the novel dovetails with — and may even respond to — another development: Prestigious English-language book prizes, once limited to writers from a handful of countries, are opening up to worldwide competition. In 2013, when the Man Booker announced it would accept non-Commonwealth books, the decision drew fierce criticism. After all, the prize was designed for quintessentially British and British-inflected writers. Global competition will surely threaten what until now has been a protectionist local game.

The world’s writers and publishers are now invested in that game. And two new international prizes for English-language novels were inaugurated in the past few years: the Folio Prize in the United Kingdom and the Windham Campbell awards in the United States. They join the Neustadt, the Impac Dublin, the Nobel, and the Booker International. Unlike most national prizes, they are highly lucrative, awarding from $50,000 on up.

When prizes — profile-raising, sales-enhancing incentives — nudge writers toward an ambitious but less vividly original style, the novel is in a pickle. South African-born Nobel laureate and two-time Man Booker winner J.M. Coetzee acknowledges the concern: “I don’t know any writers who write books that are meant simply to win prizes (as opposed to being good books), but I concede that pressure from editors and the example of the kind of books that do win prizes could in some cases have an influence on writers’ practice.” That said, he observes, “If indeed there is a formula for a prizewinning novel, any judge of integrity would surely be suspicious of a work that does nothing but implement the formula.”

But Robin Desser, editorial director at Knopf, sees no evidence that authors choose to write in a global style to sell books. “Readers are global and stories are local, and they’ve always been local,” she emphasizes. Japan’s Haruki Murakami sells millions because “there’s a hunger for other places and great storytelling.” Readers responded enthusiastically to Cutting for Stone by Ethiopian-born Keralite Abraham Verghese, set in large part at an Addis Ababa hospital during Ethiopia’s civil war. “Who would think the subject of fistula would come up in a novel read by millions of people?” Desser asks. Authorial language choice is a separate issue, she cautions, noting that Stieg Larsson’s thrillers are as popular abroad in translation as the Swedish originals, and questioning whether the Nagasaki-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro would have written The Remains of the Day, about an English butler, if he were writing in Japanese. “These authors think about what’s the best voice for this story and what’s the best way to tell it. But there’s no one holding a gun to anyone’s head saying, ‘Write in English.’”

Not a gun, perhaps, but a promise of laurels and commercial viability. There are 335 million native English speakers in the world and 505 million for whom English is a second language. Some elite international prizes accept translations, but only 4.5 percent of literary books published in the United Kingdom and Ireland are translations — and fewer than 3 percent are in the United States — putting foreign-language writers at a disadvantage in the English-speaking market. In France, by comparison, a third of novels published annually are translations.

Some fear that world literature — with its range of linguistic idiosyncrasies and regional traditions — may wilt as English becomes the lingua franca for novels. In question is whether the West is truly inclusive or if it really just values an Anglo-American style. The issue has been debated in Africa since the 1950s, Coetzee says. He asks: If a writer is aware that most of his or her readers are in the West, “will there not be a subtle internal pressure — as ell as a not-so-subtle pressure from agents and publishers — to write in a way that is accessible to Westerners (won’t require too much local knowledge, for instance) and may even reinforce Western preconceptions about the ‘natives’?” He observes that an author who writes in a local language must depend on translations for a career-sustaining income or gain command of a global language, English being both the commercially astute option and the medium of prizes.

While some novelists pander to the broadest possible international readership, however, many great ones still tilt in the other direction. In Italy, the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante writes about women in an impoverished Naples neighborhood, yet enchants readers abroad. The flowering of literature intimately grounded in place — such as the Welsh countryside in Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, wartime Biafra in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and 1950s Cuba in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to “Almendra” — may provide a robust enough counterweight to problematically complex, soulless novels that world literature has little to fear from the bylaws of juried prizes. In fact, the backlash against the ambitious, globe-straddling novel may be a parallel shift inward. In 2004, German publishers inaugurated the Deutscher Buchpreis (the German Book Prize) for the best German-language novel. And Parks observes a revival of dialect poetry in Italy.

Because a country’s literature is key to its identity, it seems shortsighted for a venerable national prize to open the floodgates to any nationality, as the Man Booker did. But the new, expressly international prizes are a different matter. Andrew Kidd, founder of the Folio Prize, is right in asserting that “for any prize launched in the 21st century, it would seem perverse to have anything other than a global outlook.” If Ferrante is any example, the world’s best writing will transcend the current fad for a high-concept style, gain word-of-mouth traction, and find the readership — and, perhaps, the prizes — it deserves.

Illustration by MAAYAN PEARL

Diane Mehta is a Brooklyn-based writer working on a novel about a mixed-race couple, set in 1946 India. Twitter: @DianeMehta

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