They’ve just announced this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize:
- Lydia Davis
I’m thrilled at this news. Not only is Lydia Davis one of my favorite writers, she is also a short story writer and a supreme translator (in fact, the only thing I have reviewed here from her is her translation of Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow (here); we’ve even done a podcast on it (here)). Click here for the official press release.
A deserving winner, indeed, from a very good list of finalists. I’d have been happy with almost any of them winning, truth be told, but I’m feeling particularly happy that it went to Davis. Davis is not the first short story writer that the Man Booker International Prize has chosen to honor. In 2009, the award went to another of my favorite writers, Alice Munro.
Stepping back, it’s worth pausing a moment to look at the five winners of the Man Booker International Prize
- 2005: Ismail Kadare
- 2007: Chinua Achebe
- 2009: Alice Munro
- 2011: Philip Roth
- 2013: Lydia Davis
Four of these winners write in English (the last four, in fact). The last three have all been from North America. They happen to be three of my favorite authors, so I have no problems with them winning this award — truly. Also it would undermine the integrity of the award if judges decided it would be inappropriate to award, say, Lydia Davis because of those who’ve already won the award. They should be judging their finalists and choosing the one they think deserves the prize in that particular year. And, of course, these authors are all different from the other. Just because Lydia Davis and Alice Munro both write short stories does not mean they write in nearly the same vein. Just because Lydia Davis and Philip Roth are both from the United States does not mean there are any other similarities.
Still, this international prize has not felt particularly international, and, while I don’t think we can use that to criticize the prize or the judges, I do think it shows the difficulties inherent in putting together an award like this. Perhaps the best way we readers can use this prize is to consider Davis a worthy winner and seek out work from all of the finalists.
I think that this prize is a farce. Even if you forget about the fact for a minute that 3 of 5 winners are from North America and that 4 of 5 of them write in English (how is this an international author award? how can this be a decent representation of the best world literature in English translation? how?). Just look at the list of nominees, e.g. here:
and compare 2005 to 2011
Philip Pullman??? John le Carre?? Do you want to tell me that they have a decent selection of writers to chose from? In 2011 there were 13 nominees overall, 8 of them from US/UK/Canada/Australia. 8!!!
Here is the statistics per year:
year nominees (english writing)
2005 18 (8)
2007 15 (10)
2009 14 (7)
2011 13 (8)
2013 10 (3)
So about half of the nominees are writing in English and in 4 of 5 cases one of them got the final prize…
I don’t want to be quite so dismissive yet; after all, the four winners have been world-class winners (in my opinion — I don’t mind if you disagree about a few of them, but I’ll have words with anyone who doesn’t think Munro or Davis are world-class). Further, this year’s list of finalists was the strongest yet, with a diverse selection of international candidates. The judges of this crop do a lot for literature in translation already. So, while it’s strange that again the winner is American and writes in English, I am somewhat heartened they didn’t simply dismiss Davis and Robinson since, hey, Roth won last time.
That said, I agree that the “international” part is in danger of being a bit of a joke, and the prize does need to figure itself out. I think part of the problem is that the finalists have to write in English or have a sufficient number of books translated into English. A sentence that repeats English twice suggests this is, in large part, an English-language prize, which it doesn’t want to be, or does it — no? yes?
Yes, as far as I have read them all of the winners are perfectly fine and worthy. That’s certainly right.
I admit that some bias towards authors writing in English cannot be avoided. But the current tendency is a bit alarming. If it goes on like this they should seriously consider to reformulate their agenda and make it an international literature award for authors writing in English.
I like your “truly.”
It was the only decision possible from the candidates: and a worthy winner whoever the potential victors might’ve been. A great writer, truly great. Format issues aside, quibbles seem a little mean-spirited in such cases. I’d hope future format tweaks wouldn’t render great writers ineligible.