A HUSH FELL OVER the large dining room at the stately Guildhall in London when Robert Macfarlane, the British travel writer who chaired the jury for the Man Booker Prize this year, walked to the podium with the name of the winner known only to him and four other judges. This was the last year Britain’s most prestigious literary prize would go to a writer exclusively from the Commonwealth.
From next year, the doors would open to the United States—the only large English-speaking country whose authors don’t qualify for the prize. Writers from the Commonwealth would still be eligible, but opening the prize to Americans raises two risks—one, that American authors might win the prize easily; the other, that fiction from Commonwealth countries, which has to struggle hard to get noticed, and which has had a good run at the Booker, will now suffer. American prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, are open only to Americans. Man Booker runs the risk of becoming the Commonwealth version of that very British institution, Wimbledon, where outsiders dominate.
To some critics, the barbarians were already at the gate. Three of the short-listed novelists this year have lived a large part of their lives in America, and their connection with the Commonwealth is not strong: NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe (no longer a Commonwealth member), lives in the United States, and Ruth Ozeki was born in Connecticut to Japanese and American parents, and has taken Canadian nationality. And then there is Jhumpa Lahiri, born to Indian parents in Britain, who moved to the United States at the age of two, and has recently moved to Italy.