Booker @ 50

With emphasis on multicultural texts and texts of cultural difference, the Prize punctuates the global flows of cultural values

By Author  |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 21st Oct 2018  12:10 amUpdated: 20th Oct 2018  9:44 pm

The colonial history of the company behind the Booker Prize is well-known. Booker McConnell Ltd sponsored the prize from 1968. Booker McConnell, originally a shipping company, had connections in Guyana, was part of the sugar industry and notorious for its use of indentured labour. This colonial history has been the subject of much controversy, although the prize itself has been one of the most coveted and envied. The Booker Prize Foundation was set up in 2002, with the investment company Man Group as sponsor, and the prize came to be known as the Man Booker, bringing together, detractors note, old and new forms of colonial empires.

Is there a Booker book? Is there a Booker aesthetic or style? These are difficult questions to answer because the authors and books that have won the Booker are of very diverse types; Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Ben Okri, Kazuo Ishiguro, Arundhati Roy, John Banville, James Kelman, Keri Hulme, to mention a few. Narrative modes have included everything from realism to postmodern experimental writing. This diversity makes it difficult, even impossible, to formulate anything like a prototype of the ‘Booker novel’. But what we can talk about is the way Booker books are now part of a global prestige economy.

Literary Vs Commercial

Literary value is not distinct from the commercial demands and value systems. The Booker is a corporate sponsor of literary value, and is thus a cultural producer in its own right. It translates the economic power of the corporate firm, the Booker company, into cultural and literary value, as Sharon Norris notes. In earlier eras, this same process was called patronage; we now see this manifest as sponsorship of prizes such as the Booker. The creation of literary value, one could say, is the corporate cultural responsibility of Booker McConnell and the Man Group. What does this corporate sponsored value and prestige do?

Many shortlisted authors, besides the winners, acquire a national cultural capital via their becoming a part of global cultural capital embodied in the Booker — they become brands. Commentators like James English note that major literary prizes go to those authors who ‘manage to take up positions of double and redoubled advantage, positions of local prestige bringing them global prestige of the sort that reaffirms and reinforces their local standing’. That is, local standing and global standing are linked, for Atwood, Beatty, Roy and Coetzee.

The prestige economy of the Booker has a decisive impact on the formation of literary value, which generates the brand image of the author, and indirectly of the culture of authorial origin. That is, an ‘Indian’ novel or ‘African’ novel when immersed in the brand-regime of the Booker, becomes the face of the nation itself. While this entails a considerable amount of risk wherein the novel will be consumed as ‘authentic India’ or ‘authentic Africa’, the interest in and attention to cultural differences are also enhanced because the Booker’s prestige economy endows the Global South with high literary visibility.

Such authors have to be, in Sarah Brouillette’s words, ‘worldreadable’. But the obverse is also true — the world reads a novel with Nigerian tropes, Indian idioms, African American or Scottish slang, precisely because it is a Booker text, thereby ensuring that the world could start reading differently as well. These narratives are frequently disruptive of the traditional forms of literary expression. Magical realism, multiple voices, odd linguistic usages informed by local languages other than English enter the lexicon. English indeed has expanded, but in ways that are informed by cultures other than British.

Spectacle of Difference

The Booker introduces the spectacle of difference into the world. The Booker novel is a particular form of cultural globalisation, but the novel itself is not a global novel, even if the prize is now globally awarded and recognised. It is not, in fact, about the globe. The Booker novel makes several corners of the world, several peoples and cultures appear on the world’s screen.

The globalisation of such fiction may be seen, as Stephen Levin has noted, a way of both imagining and contesting the global. Thus, shifting away from the traditional white man and white woman’s culture being the sole commodity in the literary marketplace, we get Maori, Black, Indian, East Asian, African American immigrant, aboriginal cultures that produce a new ‘ethnic literary chic’ for consumption. The Booker and its texts are significant players in the cosmopolitanisation of reading across the English-speaking world, which now involves, also, the Global South.

In effect, then, the Booker is the massive expansion of the cultural commodities for consumption by the world’s readers. The Booker marks a global investment in ethnicity and race, as acts of commodification but also as a space for counter-representation. That is, instead of a unidimensional version of the racial-cultural Other, we have contestatory narratives emerging from Kelman, Roy, Hulme, Coetzee, Okri and others.

It is the literary equivalent of global tourism where one is introduced to different cultures. This is, of course, the appeal of the exotic (Graham Huggan), with the supposed authentic representation of Africa, India, Gorkhas, gays and Maoris being a part of this exotic appeal. The Booker is part of the project of commodifying and glamourising cultural, racial and other differences. The Booker enables the cultural market to envisage the Global South qualities such as African genius, Indian creativity, the postcolonial use of the English language, and the institution of literature itself.

The appeal of the Booker text, whether Okri’s use of the abiku and trickster figures or Adiga’s use of Indian English, hinges upon strategies of authentication. Dialect, idioms, proverbs are modes of staging authenticity. It is the believability of these texts that make them part of the global popular, sometimes even before they become the national popular. In other words, a global popular is no longer just Western high literature as mandated by syllabi and the traditional Booker, but texts from Canada, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, India and now the USA as well. In one sense, the Booker is the remaking of the world.

Cultural Memory

This remaking of the world is a work of cultural memory. This has two aspects. First, global cultural memory, for centuries, was dominated by Europeans alone: basically, the lives and hard times of European peoples. Second, the cultural memory of the world’s peoples was hitherto seen only through the eyes of Euro-American colonial authors, but is now presented for attention by the natives themselves (all the authenticating strategies in place, of course).

For many critics, therefore, Salman Rushdie winning the Booker in 1981 was significant because it reversed the traditional portraits of the subcontinent in two previous Raj-nostalgia Booker winners: JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and Paul Scott’s Staying On (1975). (Imperial nostalgia – and nostalgia in general – critics Huggan, Földváry and Norris note, mark Booker winners!)

The cultural and ethnic memory of any community is now, through the Booker, rendered global: Syrian Christian women and ‘untouchables’ in Ayemenem (Arundhati Roy), Igbos and Africa (Okri), Parsis in Bombay (Rushdie), Jamaicans and Bob Marley (Marlon James) or topics like building the railways in Singapore (Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), social stratification in India (Adiga), Gorkhas (Desai) and post-apartheid South Africa (Coetzee).

The Booker is instrumental, then, in taking ethnic memory-as-property and making it a global memory project. In an age when strange alliances are being built across victims (eg: the Auschwitz-Hiroshima project) and shared conditions of precarious lives, the Booker transforms local cultural memory into a global one for consumption.

Progressive Initiatives

Many Booker texts introduce themes that are increasingly the subject of global human rights and other progressive initiatives. For instance, take a look at some of the winners and their key thematic concerns: queer lives (Alan Hollinghurst), postcolonial/Third World concerns about the formerly colonised and a nation-in-the-making (Rushdie, Adiga, Desai, Roy), race (Coetzee’s Disgrace and The Life and Times of Michael K, Paul Beatty), indigenous rights (Keri Hulme), the excesses of war (Richard Flanagan).

These texts acquiring global recognition may be solely focused on a local or regional problem or theme, but even being on the Booker long list enables their insertion into a global thematic where similar problems and concerns from other parts of the world are also being debated. Being at once vernacular and cosmopolitan, many of these texts are part of the global literary canon with their very particularised interests.

The prestige economy of Literature, of which the Man Booker is a key constituent, influences readership patterns by endowing culturally different texts with visibility and symbolic capital. With an emphasis on multicultural texts and texts of cultural difference, the Man Booker, when judiciously administered, goes a long way in punctuating the global flows of cultural value, and drawing attention to widespread problems of precarious lives, tragedy and pleasure. Its role in reorganising ‘this strange institution called literature’ is incalculable precisely because it gives visibility to things that have not been said before, or not said in this way before.

(The author teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. Sections of this essay draw upon the author’s forthcoming book, Brand Postcolonial)