UK Politics

British novelists need not fear an American takeover of the Booker prize | Letters

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American writers won’t scoop up every prize, says former Man Booker judge Alastair Niven; while Robynn Ormond puts in a word for Mártín Ó Cadhain’s literary experiment

Tibor Fischer argues (Opinion, 17 October) that by opening up the Man Booker prize to writers from countries other than the UK and the Commonwealth – ie to Americans – there is no longer a level playing field. It’s true British authors are not eligible for the main US awards, but isolationism on one side of the Atlantic need not be met by timidity on the other. I was a judge of the Man Booker prize in 2014 when American books were first admitted, and all the panel felt this had brought wonderful new energy to it. I was able to compare it with an earlier year when I had again been a judge, but without any American submissions. Second time round was even more enjoyable than the first because we knew we were meeting the challenge of finding the best novel in the English language of that year, regardless of where it originated.

We chose an Australian book. The next year the winner was Jamaican. This year British and Pakistani writers have been on the shortlist. Why should British or Commonwealth novelists be frightened of American competition? Each year the judges make a sincere effort to find the best. There will be plenty of future winners from the UK, the Commonwealth and, of course, the US. I refuse to accept that the Americans are so overwhelmingly amazing that the rest of the world can only watch in awe as they inevitably scoop up every literary prize going. Who won the Nobel prize in literature this year? A Briton of Japanese origin.
Alastair Niven
Director of literature, Arts Council England 1987-97; Director of literature, British Council, 1997-2001; President, English PEN, 2003-07

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