All-embracing limits of Man Booker Prize

The longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize contains many surprises, starting with the revelation that chief judge and highbrow philosopher A.C. Grayling enjoys blokey books of "chuck-lit" romance.

The line-up of 13 novels includes charming but lightweight tales of seeking meaning in middle age - Us by best-selling popular British author David Nicholls and To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by American writer Joshua Ferris - but leaves out sexy feminist fiction from former Booker contenders Sarah Waters (The Paying Guests) and Linda Grant (Upstairs At The Party).

The fact that the longlist announced on July 23 names only three female authors out of 13 is only the first oddity. Next is that in a year when the prize was to expand its reach from Britain and some former colonies to countries such as China, the longlist is dominated by perspectives from Britain and the United States.

The £50,000 (S$103,500) Man Booker Prize is considered among the highest literary accolades in the English-speaking world and has made the careers of writers such as Salman Rushdie (Indian-born British), Ben Okri (Nigerian) and Kiran Desai (Indian).

Traditionally open to books written by authors from Britain, Ireland or any of the 53 members of the Commonwealth - including India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Canada - the contest was opened last September to writers published in English in Britain, regardless of nationality. This meant that contenders could now come in from formerly excluded countries such as China and the US.

So in this year when the prize will supposedly "recognise, celebrate and embrace authors writing in English, whether from Chicago, Sheffield or Shanghai", to quote the original press release, the longlist comprises four Americans, one Irish-American, one Irishman, one Australian and six Britons (including one born in India, who must be the token Asian representation).

This is laughable, considering last year's diverse array. The 2013 Man Booker longlist included books from Zimbabwe's NoViolet Bulawayo, Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri, Canada-based Japanese-American Ruth Ozeki as well as Britain's Jim Crace and Ireland's Colm Toibin. The prize went to Eleanor Catton of New Zealand.

The chosen novels this year include stories of a World War II death camp in South-east Asia (The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Tasmania's Richard Flanagan); expats in Dubai (The Dog by Irish-American Joseph O'Neill) and civil unrest in India (The Lives Of Others by India-born Briton Neel Mukherjee), but one can argue that the list has an overwhelmingly Western and white perspective.

Overlooked by the judges were striking stories from Asia which easily fulfil the Booker's rules that entries be novels, not short stories, and in English, not a translation. There is Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie's fractured but beautiful book about British rule failing in Peshawar, A God In Every Stone; Chinese-American author Yiyun Li's Beijing drama, Kinder Than Solitude; and Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee's dystopian tale of a Chinese-dominated US, On Such A Full Sea, just to name a few.

The Man Booker longlist this year does include tried and tested talent: past Booker contenders like Britons Ali Smith (How To Be Both) and David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks); Irish-American O'Neill and 2010 Booker winner Howard Jacobson (J). The American entries include well-known names Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), Richard Powers (Orfeo) and Siri Hustvedt (The Blazing World).

Debut novelist Paul Kingsnorth (The Wake) has made a name as a poet and essayist. Mukherjee won awards in both India and Britain for his 2010 debut novel, A Life Apart. Flanagan won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Gould's Book Of Fish. Irishman Niall Williams has written nine novels, including this year's longlisted The History Of Rain, and was twice longlisted for the Irish Times Impac Dublin Literary Award.

But I am not convinced all the longlisted titles are better reading than the books of overlooked authors such as Shamsie, Li and Lee.

The longlist seems to indicate depressingly parochial tastes on the part of judges who mostly come from British academic circles: Grayling is a former Oxford don who now runs the independent New College of the Humanities. His colleagues include two Oxford professors; one from the University of East Anglia; a neuroscientist from King's College, London; and an American-born British journalist.

Forget then the shortlist to be announced on Sept 9 and abandon interest in the winner to be named on Oct 14.

International readers should perhaps turn instead to the Man Booker International Prize, a biennial award which will next year bestow £60,000 to a living author in English or English translation. The judges alone tick all the right boxes in terms of diversity: Among them are Taiwan-born Wen-chin Ouyang, a professor of Arabic and comparative literature from the University of London; and award-winning Pakistan-born author Nadeem Aslam.

But for better or worse, it is the Man Booker Prize which carries the most weight in this part of the world. Few awards from Asia can compete in terms of prize money: The US$30,000 (S$37,500) Man Asian Literary Prize seems to have lost its funding last year. The newly established US$50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, awarded at the annual Jaipur Literary Festival in India, is solely for works focusing on South Asia.

A place on the Man Booker longlist is also coveted for the efficient publicity machinery which eclipses that of all other awards, including the Nobel Prize, in terms of driving book sales in Singapore and other Asian countries.

Given this state of affairs, one cannot expect Asian writers to boycott the Booker entirely. Better that people lobby for greater international representation in the jury. But do readers from countries outside Britain and the US care that their narratives are being overlooked? The Booker committee is betting on "No". So far they seem to be correct.

This article was published on Aug 25 in The Straits Times.

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