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English Is a World Language -- and That's to Be Prized

October 13, 2003|Robert McCrum

The Man Booker Prize for the best new novel of 2003, which will be awarded at a glittering dinner in London on Tuesday night, likes to claim that it is Britain's premier literary prize. A mixture of the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, it is also more than that: a great sporting fixture, a bettor's nightmare and the annual signal that Christmas is around the corner.

In successive fall seasons, the prize effortlessly stirs up literary controversy at home, while around the world it makes people who might otherwise take a thriller or a biography to bed open a new novel, probably by someone they've never heard of. According to Booker's own rules, that someone must be a citizen of the British Isles, the republic of Ireland or the former colonial possessions known as the Commonwealth.

When it was established in 1968, the Booker prize -- which has been awarded to writers from Salman Rushdie to Nadine Gordimer to Iris Murdoch -- reflected English literature's ex-colonial dimension. The nod to the Commonwealth was just that, a gesture to lesser breeds whose literary voices had only just begun to attract attention.

American literature, not even referred to, was seen as an utterly separate, and indeed remote, tradition. There was no talk of global English, and absolutely no suggestion that the novel-in-English could be expressed in any number of local varieties: Indian, Australian, Canadian and South African.

In the 35 years since the Booker prize was launched, English-language culture has changed beyond recognition. There is now a recognizable world English, expressed in an idiom that is neither fully British nor even wholly American. The superabundant vitality of so-called Commonwealth literature that contributes to this world English culture in books, newspapers, music, films and television is equally familiar with both British and American literary traditions. And the cross-fertilization, through the medium of standard written English, is now central to our experience of literature. J.M. Coetzee, the recent Nobel laureate from South Africa, will be equally at home with the works of Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.

In other words, it no longer makes sense for an important literary prize, like the Man Booker, to consider fiction by, say, Londoner Peter Ackroyd but not New Yorker Jonathan Franzen. That would be as absurd as discriminating between American and British movies.

Of course there is an American and a British literary tradition, and of course they are distinct. But they are both expressed in a language that is mutually intelligible. In the culture of world English, readers will happily navigate a narrative set in California and one located in, say, the hills of Cumbria. This, after all, is what American and British readers do with a novel by the Australian Peter Carey ("Ned Kelly") or the Indian Vikram Seth ("A Suitable Boy").

The more you look at the nationalistic assumptions that underlie the great Anglo-American literary awards, Pulitzer or Man Booker, the more archaic and out of touch with contemporary cultural reality they seem. That is not because the prizes are administered by hidebound geriatrics, but much more to do with the dizzy pace of change in the community of world English.

Most of the writers I know are involuntary globe trotters, professionally peripatetic between literary festivals, prize juries and multicultural seminars. Indeed one of their regular complaints -- as they head off for yet another airport -- is that it's the world English marketplace in which they are obliged to sell their wares that keeps them from the source of their inspiration, their home base.

In Britain, which for years saw itself as the headquarters of a linguistic and literary multinational, the implications of this new reality are now being discussed more and more openly. In London, many commentators are now saying that the time has come for a national institution like the Man Booker -- which last year attracted the sponsorship of a dynamic Canadian hedge fund -- to globalize itself. Man Booker, under new sponsorship, is now being urged to become the genuinely premier prize by allowing American writers to compete on equal terms with the British, the Irish and the rest of the Commonwealth.

The chances of this happening are remote: The prize organizers have already begun to cite the administrative difficulties of handling submissions from across the English-speaking world. Lurking behind this objection is a fear that American literary culture will prove overwhelming.

Perhaps the time has come for an American multinational to do itself a bit of good by sponsoring a World English fiction prize.

Robert McCrum, literary editor of the London Observer, is coauthor of "The Story of English" (Penguin, 1986).

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