I am one American writer who was disappointed when the Booker Prize decided to include works originally published in the U.S.A. I understand that this was a preemptive move to ensure that the Booker Prize, besides paying the most money of any major English-language prize, would hold onto its preeminence. In my humble opinion, the prize always would have been preeminent due to the fact that the ceremony itself is televised and that a large percentage of the population in the UK actually watches the winner being announced. This could never happen in the U.S. There isn’t enough interest in such things, and even if there were, a televised literary ceremony would probably be preempted by some sporting event that would certainly draw down any potential audience. Don’t get me wrong, Europeans watch sports as much as or more than we do; however, educated Europeans seem to have more time to devote to cultural awards or to the celebration of culture, itself. In France, for example, a literary television show called Apostrophe was hugely popular until it went off the air, and any American published in French and whose French was good enough to be on the show, saw book sales spike in Oprah-like fashion. Ask Paul Auster.
This year, there were two American writers nominated for the Brooker prize: Ann Tyler (whose novels I confess to have stopped reading a while ago) and Hanya Yanagihara, the author of A Little Life, a novel that has — deservedly — received a lot of attention and which I read and wrote about with great admiration. When I heard that these novels were on the short-list, I predicted to a writer friend of mine that these writers would not possibly win — for two reasons. First, they are Americans; and I believe that choosing an American to win the Booker Prize this early in the literary desegregation process would cause lots of carping and complaints in the Commonwealth. Second, and more important, both of these novels are about people of some privilege, most of them white people, and the trend of recognizing great literature seems to be skewing toward writers who are bringing new dimension to the English language by virtue of being foreigners, or as in the case of this year’s Booker winner, Marlon James, a Jamaican who has harnessed that country’s patois vernacular in his own inimitable way and in so doing, reinvented English.
Yanagihara grew up in Hawaii and is of Asian decent. One of the strengths of her novel is that, being a minority, she is able to write confidently and honestly about her own and other minorities. And if her observations seem arch or strident you find yourself deferring to them anyway. She writes about New York with the overview of someone who has come to the city as an outsider but has penetrated to the city soul without losing her perspective. And even if she does focus on successful yuppie types, her broad view celebration of New York rivals Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Her novel is also grounded in a dark undercurrent of physical and sexual abuse, a fairly new powerful territory in contemporary literature that soon will be as glutted with novels and memoirs as the novels and memoirs about growing up Jewish or Italian or Irish.
But as good and as deep as Yanagihara’s novel is, with many breathtaking passages, it does deal with subjects and situations that are somewhat familiar to us. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James, on the other hand, is offering the modern history of Jamaica, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and filtering it through the lens of a patois stream of consciousness and in many different points of view. His novel makes one understand how the masterful originality of Reggae music came to be, but also delivers an enormous cast of characters, drug-dealers, politicians, musicians, corrupt policeman, and limns the delicate relationship between the United States and the Caribbean, as well as giving us a complex portrait of the vibrant, violent capital city of Kingston. This is a world that most of us do not know, and beyond being a tour de force of writing, James’ novel becomes a point of reference and a vital piece of history. It’s a shame that, except for the National Book Critics Circle, this novel was overlooked for prize nominations when it was published here in 2014. But thanks to the new all inclusive nature of The Booker Prize, many of us might do some soul searching on what makes for truly great contemporary literature.