The Birdcage Archives

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Reigniting Booker Prize Controversy and Criticism

Hello Gentle Reader

In two-thousand and fourteen the Booker Prize, had  shifted its focus and inclusion policies, to allow for American writers to compete for the prize alongside, writers from the United Kingdom, as well as the old Common Wealth; which includes but is not limited to: Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The decision of inclusion was not without its cheers of support; but it had just as many jeers of criticism – my voice included in the later of the two categories.

Now the controversy has been reignited by Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes, who has stated that the decision to include American writers along with ‘heavy hitters,’ was daft and would deplete and overshadow the chances of others. Barnes would elucidate upon his comments by stating:

“The idea of [the Booker] being Britain, Ireland, the old Commonwealth countries and new voices in English from around the world gave it a particular character and meant it could bring on writers. If you also include Americans – and get a couple of heavy hitters – then the unknown Canadian novelist hasn’t got a chance.”

This comes around just as this year’s award went to: Paul Beatty, for his uncomfortably satirical dark comedy of a novel “The Sellout,” which discusses racism in modern day America; the novel most certainly would hit home with greater poignancy and potency, with the election and Donald Trump’s win.

Barnes comes could not be more relevant; despite being a few years late in the game, with the Booker Prize’s inclusive policy. Criticism of the decision, where aimed at the Booker Prize grasping at straws to attempt to retain some relevancy in today’s literary world, and book market. By including the prize to American writers, the Booker Prize will see itself enter new markets, and obtain a greater readership as well. Yet, the decision was not without its controversy, which rebounds now with Barnes comments.

Since the inclusion of American writers, in two-thousand and fourteen – only one American has won the award (Paul Beatty); but the controversy and the subsequent debate has been reignited by Barnes’s comments, including this one:

“Which American prizes are open to Brits? In theory, I think only the National Book Award is. I don’t think any Brit has won a major American award for years.”

Much like Julian Barnes and other critics of the Booker – I doubt, we will see the Pulitzer Prize open its doors to being more inclusive of other writers, from the English language.

Many other writers however have given their support to Barnes’s comments. Dame A.S. Byatt’s spokesperson had stated that she: “agrees with everything Julian Barnes has about this.” Susan Hill a judge for the award back in two-thousand and eleven, also added her void to the chorus. She believes Barnes’s comments hold a great deal of weight; and mentioned with the inclusion of American writers, that the “dice are now loaded against UK authors.” Though it should be noted it’s not just loaded against writers from the United Kingdom, it pushes Canadian, Irish, South African, Australian, and New Zealand writers back further as well; as the playing field becomes more saturated by American writers and publishers.

Philip Hensher also reiterates his predications for the Booker Prize’s downfall back in two-thousand and thirteen:

“It is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic superpower exerting its own literary tastes, just as the British empire imposed the idea that Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived throughout its 19th-century colonies”

Though it could be fair to state, that the prize has not completely fall into oblivion and been destroyed by any repair. The last two winners: Marlon James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” and Paul Beatty, “The Sellout,” – both share an independent publisher: Oneworld; who has reached greater audience by producing some very intelligent and unique literary novels, which generally go overlooked or are denied by bigger mainstream publishers.

Yet doom and gloom still fills the atmosphere of the Booker Prize, as it grasps for a life boat to remain relevancy in the literary world; but also must come to terms that in numerous occasions of the past, it has overlooked great novels, in favour of old favourites, or more established writers; perhaps with the exception of Marlon James and Paul Beatty. But if the Booker Prize is to retain its relevancy and gather more of it, to live up to its grand name and illustrious heritage; it should continue on the path of awarding newer more vibrant talent, which are just becoming into their skin and into their pens, as their novels are trying to be published and their work trying to find readers in which to appreciate their voices, their themes, their messages, and their views.

The Booker Prize may not be dead. It may be trying to reinvent itself; renovate the house; clean up a bit around the corners, in which to gather greater support and readership; but by doing this is not by awarding already established writers, or opening the award up to American writers. To truly gather some greater support, and to put oneself up as a literary coinsure of contemporary tongues and taste, one needs to look for the newly arriving stars, the small flicker of a starving literary talent on the cusp of success or complete and utter failure. It’s time to champion the new, the up and coming, the reinvigoration and reigniting of the literary novel and steward those authors and their success.

Yet, Will Self put it best with the Booker Prize (and all literary prizes), when he showcased his complete indifference towards the award:

“Pets win prizes. It hardly matters if they’re Boston terriers or British bulldogs, the important thing is that prizes have come to dominate the literary world because they’re effective marketing tools in a cultural era in which genuine literary criticism and judgment has given way to febrile consumerism.”

For now though Gentle Reader, I do hope to a degree the Booker Prize continues to find new novels, emerging talent, and new writers in which to award the prize to, just as they have with Marlon James (and yes) Paul Beatty, who have tackled interesting issues, albeit controversial ones at times as well.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

For more on this please see the following links to “The Guardian,”

Wednesday 23 November 2016

William Trevor Dies Aged 88

Hello Gentle Reader

Few literary forms Gentle Reader claim to have a practitioner within it, who can be deemed a master; but with the short story, there are a few devoted practioners to the form who can be elevated to the esteem of: Master of the Short Story form.

History is riddled with such masters of the form; from Anton Chekhov, to Yasunari Kawabata, to the Nobel Laureate and ‘contemporary master of the short story,’ herself: Alice Munro. In large part though, Anton Chekhov reshaped the short story genre, and would begin paving the way for the literary format to receive greater respect, and would establish the forma as a unique literary form of expression. Others had followed suit, and would find continual success in the short story genre such as: RyĆ«nosuke Akutagawa (considered the grandfather of the Japanese short story); Antonio Tabucchi, and many others. This being stated, many writers who thrived in the short story format, would later go on and publish novels; and yet many (such as Yasunari Kawabata) feel that in order to truly understand their literary expression, one need only look at their more shorter works to truly understand their craft of brevity and literary dexterity. William Trevor was an accomplished Irish novelist, and more importantly master of the short story in his own right. In his long career Trevor had published fifteen novels, and numerous short stories, which resulted in thirteen collections, along with two volumes of collected short stories; and three collections of selected stories. William Trevor was nominated for the Booker Prize four times, for his novels: “Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel,” (1970),  “The Children of Dynmouth,” (1976), “Reading Turgenev,” (1991), and “The Story of Lucy Gault,” (2002).” William Trevor’s work is noted for being set in Irish and/or English villages, in which he depicts the individuals who are holding onto the lower middle class standing, as they battle against a capricious fate and the daily battles of life. Trevor’s short stories and novels are noted for the stark and dour atmosphere, complete with an overcast day and a high chance of rain. His characters were noted for their struggles, but also for the varied cast and colour. Ted Solotaroff reviewed “Beyond the Pale and Other Stories,” in the New York Times and mentioned the spectrum of Trevor’s figures:

“His farmers and priests and men of the turf are as convincing and suggestive as his Hempstead aesthetes, his suburban swingers, his old-boy homosexuals, his mod clerks and shopgirls. Nothing seems alien to him; he captures the moral atmosphere of a sleek advertising agency, of a shabby West End dance hall, of a minor public school, of a shotgun wedding in an Irish pub.”

Despite writing numerous novels, William Trevor had always expressed greater enjoyment with the short story format; and claimed his novels only came into being when he could not fit them into short stories; and further elucidated that his novels are simply interconnected short stories. Personally, I always held the view that William Trevor was Alice Munor’s rival when it came to the short story, and recognition, and especially the Nobel; always thinking to myself one or the other will have to take it for the short story to gain its recognition; though ideally hoping it could have been a joint award between the two writers. Despite Trevor not receiving the Nobel alongside Alice Munro; he is best now more than ever not seen as a rival, but rather an equal in his mastery of the short story form, in how he offers glimpses into the lives of his varied cast of characters, and their unfortunate struggles.

Writing and the short story, were not William Trevor’s first calling or jab at the artistic world. William Trevor first was a sculptor, working under the name: Trevor Cox. During this time he supplemented his income by teaching on the side. It wasn’t until he began working in London for an advertising agency as a copywriter, that Trevor began to write, and would soon fall in love with the literary art form of the short story. Trevor disowned his first published novel “A Standard of Behaviour,” and has refused to see it re-released; and considers “The Old Boys,” to be his first novel. With “The Old Boys,” published and wining the Hawthornden Prize William Trevor at the age of thirty-six would go on to write full time, and become one of Ireland’s most prestigious and well known writers.

William Trevor however died on November 21st, peacefully in his sleep at the age of eighty-eight. With the passing of William Trevor the short story format has lost one of its greatest advocates and practitioners. William Trevor truly was a master of the short story.

Rest in Peace William Trevor.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary