By David Brauner, Professor of Contemporary Literature, University of Reading
Lincoln in the Bardo is a worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize and is further confirmation of the supremacy of American authors in the field of contemporary fiction, following Paul Beatty’s win last year for The Sellout.
With a few notable exceptions, British novelists seem tame and timid in comparison to their American counterparts. It was great to see Kazuo Ishiguro win the Nobel Prize but he would probably be the first to agree with Garrison Keillor that it’s a scandal that so many of the great contemporary Americans – Philip Roth pre-eminent among them – have been consistently overlooked for the honour. Every year, for the best part of two decades, Roth has been heavily tipped for the prize – alongside fellow Americans Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates – but when, last year, they finally decided to give it to an American writer (an American Jewish writer, at that), it was Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) who got the nod.
For the first couple of years after the Booker threw its doors open to the Americans in 2014, I feared that they might be guilty of similar perversity: the shortlists in 2014 and 2015 (which produced winners from Australia and Jamaica, respectively) seemed designed to reassure those British novelists (such as Philip Hensher and A.S. Byatt) who had predicted that the Americans would colonise the prize and marginalise Commonwealth writing.
In the last two years, however, the tide has turned, with first Beatty’s victory and now Saunders’. I had thought that perhaps another American author on this year’s shortlist, Paul Auster, might win for 4321, as I had hoped that the prize in 2015 might have gone to Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (on the basis that the recipients of the Prize often win for works that are not their best, making the prize implicitly more of a lifetime’s achievement award).
But I’m glad that Saunders – who also won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2014 for his short-story collection Tenth of December – prevailed, because Lincoln in the Bardo was, quite simply, the best (which is to say the most ground-breaking generically, intellectually ambitious, stylistically brilliant) novel on the shortlist.
Spare a thought, though, for Ali Smith – now four times the bridesmaid and never the bride. She is one of the few Brits who I would put in the same company as the best contemporary American authors. What’s the betting that her next novel will win, even if it isn’t as good as the four that have already been shortlisted but missed out on the prize?
What’s the betting, also, that contemporary American novelists will dominate the Booker for many years to come?