The Booker Prize and Its Impact on South Asian Writing in English
There are many factors that contribute to the establishment and to the critical acclaim of South Asian writing in English (hereafter SAWE) across the world. Literary prizes are one of those. Among all the literary prizes, I argue in this paper, the Booker Prize seems to be remaining a major determinant in the creation and expansion of communities of writers and readers of SAWE as well as the instant commercial success and increased critical visibility of SAWE around the world. To support my argument, I will particularly focus on two Booker winning novels: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
Literary prizes play an important role in the increasing global visibility, commercial success and a survival beyond the publication year of literary works. Along with these impacts, winning and nomination for literary prizes ensure, to a certain extent, the fundamental quality of the works and generate worldwide media- and reader-interest in them. They also contribute to the shaping of the afterlives of new titles. Regarding the impact of literary prizes, Sandra Ponzanesi argues that “literary awards help to exponentially increase the visibility and the sales of nominated authors, magically equip them with an unprecedented publicity which their predecessors could only have dreamed of, and maybe provide them a place in the short-term canon” (129). Ponzanesi further says that “literary prizes have an impact on academic reception and canonical recognition, as long as the old is present in the new” (128-129). Similarly, Claire Squires writes that literary prizes “are integrally involved with the processes of canonisation, both by choosing works to reward and promote, but also by defining the ways in which they are chosen” (101). For Graham Huggan, literary prizes “function as legitimising mechanisms that foreground the symbolic, as well as material, effects of the process of literary evaluation” (118). There is thus an almost obvious shift in the contemporary world in the evaluation of a literary work whereby the prize winning or nomination tag rather than the aesthetic/universal properties has become the yardstick of measuring the worth of a literary piece.
As we know, there are five Booker winning South Asian novels to date: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in 1992, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in 1997, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in 2006 and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger in 2008. Apart from these Booker winning novels, there are many other novels which were shortlisted and longlisted for the prize in different years. In the present paper, I argue that the Booker Prize has significantly contributed to the growth of SAWE and to its story of commercial success. I will particularly focus on two Booker winning novels: Midnight’s Children and The God of Small Things because they have had a pivotal and far-reaching impact on the growth of SAWE and on its commercial success and because they gave South Asian writers a subject to write about and a language to write in, thereby releasing the creative energies of a whole new generation of SAWE. But before that, I will map a brief history of the Booker Prize and the controversies surrounding it which, I think, are intrinsic to the understanding of its impact on SAWE.
The Booker Prize was launched in 1968 by Booker plc, formerly the Booker McConnell company – a multinational agribusiness conglomerate – initially formed in 1834 in the British colony of Demerara (now Guyana). The company was built on the sweats of black plantation workers in Guyana and achieved rapid prosperity under an exploitative colonial regime by dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond. It was in the early 1960s that the company founded its book division and accordingly it purchased copyrights from bestselling British fiction writers such as Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, which proved to be a lucrative enterprise, thus prompting the company to establish the Booker Prize for Fiction. But in 2000 when Booker plc was taken over by the British supermarket company Iceland which declined to be the donor of the prize, there were intense speculations and media debates about the prize’s precarious future. In 2002, the prize was relaunched as the Man Booker Prize for Fiction with the sponsorship from an international London-based alternative investment management company Man Group plc. Its sponsorship was once again transferred to the Silicon Valley billionaire Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman’s charitable foundation ‘Crankstart’ which refused to add its name to the award, thereby reverting to its original name: the Booker Prize for Fiction effective from June 1st, 2019 when the Man Group’s sponsorship ended. Widely regarded today as one of the most prestigious awards for the book of the year, the Booker was intended and still continues to be awarded to the very best piece, in the opinion of the judges, of English fiction of the year from a selection of authors from the UK, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland as long as the novel’s birthplace is the UK. Since 2014, the eligibility for the Booker nomination has been extended to English novels by US writers, but again those novels have to be born in the UK. It was, since its very onset, planned to provide the winning novels as well as the shortlisted and longlisted ones with careful media coverage in an attempt to guarantee greater critical attention, greater publicity and thus a greater increase in sales of them.
The Booker Prize is perceived to have a multicultural consciousness. It has a reputation as the postcolonial literary patron because it has recognized, since its inception, postcolonial writers and their works often before they achieve global recognition. But there are many critics who are suspicious of the impact of the prize on the development and circulation of postcolonial novels and the prestige of postcolonial writers. For example, Huggan argues that “the Booker Prize, even as it has expanded public awareness of the global dimensions of English-language literature, has paradoxically narrowed this awareness to a handful of internationally recognised postcolonial writers” (119). For some other critics, the Booker Prize has promoted postcolonial novels (either winners or shortlisted or longlisted) not as an index of ideas and ideals that have the potential to transform the whole world and not as primarily a product of imagination and creativity but as an exotic and commercial commodity and that it has promoted postcolonial writers as authentic voices or representatives of their respective ethnicities rather than creative writers per se. With regard to the commercial aspect of the prize, Amit Chaudhuri points out, “Today there’s little intellectual or material investment in writers: literary prizes and shortlists are meant to sell books, and, although there’s a plethora of them, the Man Booker is the only one that has a real commercial impact” (My fellow authors). He further explains that the “Booker prize is disingenuous not only for excluding certain forms of fiction (short stories and novellas are out of the reckoning), but for not actually considering all the novels published that year, as it asks publishers to nominate a certain number of novels only” (My fellow authors). On the contrary, Ana Cristina Mendes posits, “More than simply selling books, the Booker contributes to the canonisation of writers, and nowhere is this more evident than in Rushdie’s case, an effect that also extends to his “children”” (47). However, though the Booker patronizes and promotes postcolonial novels critical of British imperialism and colonialism, the prize still carries, albeit implicitly, a colonial legacy or at least a reminder of British colonial hierarchy in the sense that its initial sponsor was an actual colonialist, that it is based in the former colonial center London, that it is a British prize, that the jury members remain largely British and that the novels have to be published that year in the UK and to be submitted by British publishers. Apart from these, it generated almost from the moment of its birth scandals and controversies such as nepotism of judges, Oscar-like spectacular televised finale, the gala dinner, petty squabbling, rewarding allegedly mediocre fiction or splitting award between two authors. For many critics, scandals and controversies of the prize have become the chief marketing and publicity tool over the years and have a bearing on its global success.
By the beginning of the third decade of the new millennium, many South Asian writers have garnered almost all the globally prestigious literary prizes which have played a significant role in the growth of SAWE. Among all the literary prizes, the Booker Prize, I argue, is the most important one because the Booker winning and the shortlisted/longlisted South Asian novels together have acted as a major determining catalyst in the creation and expansion of communities of writers and readers of SAWE as well as the instant commercial success and increased critical visibility of SAWE around the world. In fact, SAWE began to really find in South Asia and across the world an immensely increased readership, serious critical attention, globally renowned literary awards and enormous commercial success with Rushdie’s Booker winning novel Midnight’s Children in 1981. The novel’s initial printing, to borrow from Sarah Brouillette, “was a modest 1750 copies, but it went on to sell in the tens of thousands in hardcover in the UK and the US” and its Booker win “significantly boosted its sales and the novel was continually reprinted” (84). It also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1981 and found itself on the 2003 list of the BBC’s The Big Read poll of the UK’s ‘best-loved novels’ and on the Great Books of the 20th century published by Penguin Books. It was further awarded the ‘Booker of the Bookers’ in 1993 and the ‘Best of the Booker’ in 2008 to mark the 25th and 40th anniversary of the prize respectively, which indicates its symbolic value and its author Rushdie’s status as the ‘brand author’ for SAWE or as the cultural gatekeeper of South Asia. Rushdie’s success lies in his novel’s thematic lines such as the reimagining of the nation and the ambivalent relationship between the individual and the nation and in its stylistic features such as the confluence of Latin-American narrative technique ‘magical realism’, India’s oral narrative traditions and the textual form of Western fiction.
After winning the Booker Prize, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was hailed inside and outside South Asia as a landmark text in postcolonial literary history and it almost immediately became a kind of yardstick against which writers, readers and critics began to evaluate new novels. No doubt, the publication of the novel was a watershed moment in the post-independence development of SAWE, so much so that the term ‘post-Rushdie’ has come into currency to refer to the decade or so afterward in which “the new novels were in the nature of a radical break with the earlier, in their themes as well as the literary experimentation they attempted” (Rajan 17). But it would be naïve to attribute every credit to Rushdie’s novel as the sole literary influence in the case of the global recognition of SAWE. But surely his novel worked as a catalyst of change and its impact on the growth and on the global visibility of SAWE was undeniable. One significant aspect of this impact is that Rushdie made SAWE available to the global, cross-cultural readership. Another notable impact is that Rushdie’s success enabled a cluster of a new generation of South Asian writers to narrate their personal stories in their own voices; they got liberated from polite, deferential, Edwardian writing where writers wrote very correctly and formally in beautiful prose; they sprinkled their English with untranslated native words in a bid to cleanse the language of the colonizers’ taint. Equally remarkable are the facts that the novel’s success created a space for SAWE in academic courses on world literature and opened up a world market for SAWE: it got globally recognized publishers and drew more attention of diverse readers from around the world than ever before. Further in post-Rushdie period, even a young South Asian writer in English who wanted to publish her/his debut novel did not face any big challenge to find a leading transnational publisher if s/he had a foreign education, a foreign job or at least a place for staying in a foreign location. Consequently, there was a rapid and remarkable increase in the production of SAWE back home and within diaspora in the 1980s and 1990s. Importantly, as Rajeswari Sunder Rajan argues, “Rushdie still tends to be the standard by which both sameness and difference are measured” (20). Moreover, the novel played a dominant role in contesting the sole supremacy of English literary canon and in dissolving the great tradition of F. R. Leavis into the creation of a plurality of traditions springing from diverse regions, races and cultures across the world. The novel acted as an impetus even to established writers unlike Rushdie. For example, Anita Desai admitted that the novel gave her “the courage and artistic room to move into the public sphere in her own fiction” (qtd in Rege 124).
As Rajan puts it, “Anglophone novelists following in the wake of Midnight’s Children, and directly inspired by it, embarked on similar narratives of the nation – more accurately of the Indian nation” (18). Over the course of the 1980s, the most commonly reproduced features of Midnight’s Children in most new novels revolved around, as many critics and writers observe, the reinvention of allegory, a multigenerational mock-epic family saga telling the story of the protagonist’s family as a national chronicle, a rejection of traditional, social realist novelistic convention and instead an adoption of larger-than-life reality in the tradition of magical realism, a sprawling style full of digression and humor, the dismantling of the narrative mode of colonizing culture, the use of myth and oral storytelling tradition, different versions and ideas of history, a playful irreverence of the sacred cows of nationalism and religion, figures of minority communities appearing as protagonists, the sexual frankness, the decolonization of English, and above all, an ambivalent relationship between the individual and the nation-state. Regarding the impact of the novel on its smaller, quieter antecedents, Chaudhuri points out that “Rushdie represents a kind of hallucinatory cliff behind which we cannot see” (Life Sentences). Jon Mee describes the novel’s appearance as “a second coming for the Indian novel in English” and “a renaissance in Indian writing in English which has outdone that of the 1930s” (318). For William Dalrymple, the novel “liberated Indian writing in English from its colonial straitjacket. It also gave birth to a new voice, one that was exuberantly magical, cosmopolitan and multicultural, full of unexpected cadences, as well as forms that were new to the English novel but deeply rooted in Indian traditions of storytelling” (The lost sub-continent).
SAWE reached its recognizable and remarkable shape across the globe after Arundhati Roy’s debut The God of Small Things won duly (and controversially) the 1997 Booker Prize. It shot to the top of bestseller lists in the USA, India, Australia and Britain for several months and sold around four million copies in twenty-four languages by the end of 1997. In Bombay, it was sold to motorists when they waited at traffic lights. It has already been translated into more than forty languages and has never been out of print. It has been selected as one of the 100 most influential novels by the BBC News on 5 November 2019 and has become almost an inevitable choice in the academic courses on world literature. It shaped not only South Asian domestic literary scene but also South Asian diasporic one with its refreshingly new voice, distinctive in subject matter, tone and style, and with a whole new range of linguistic aerobics. It marks a significant departure from Rushdie’s trademark style of magic realism or from ambitious literary fiction in the form of ‘huge, baggy monster’ or ‘big national allegory’ (though such novels still being published) that appears to capture the entirety of life in modern South Asia and accordingly leading SAWE to explore much more limited regional and cultural narrative frameworks. Padmini Mongia understands the publication of Roy’s novel within the Indian literary world as signaling “the end of one era” which “had begun with Midnight’s Children” and as heralding “the beginning of another very different era” (104). Anuradha Marwah sees the novel “as a liberative text for Indian women without qualifying their assessments with the role of the market in the making of its success” while concurrently it “provides release from the limitations of Rushdiesque writing” (59). Dalrymple aptly points out that “Roy’s international critical and commercial success in 1997 radically changed perceptions of Indian writing in English, and not just in Delhi. Roy’s book was immediately recognised as a major literary achievement” (The lost sub-continent). He adds:
There quickly followed a major publishing feeding-frenzy: international literary agents and publishers descended on India from London and New York, signing up a whole tranche of authors, many of whom received major advances for outlines of novels they had barely begun. Picador launched a list exclusively devoted to Indian writing in 1998; the office was soon buried under an avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts. Throughout the late 1990s, barely a month went by without the news of some fledgling scribbler being discovered lurking as a sub-editor on the Indian Express or pushing papers in the Ministry of External Affairs. (The lost sub-continent)
The astounding success of the novel not only destabilized the predominant presence of male writers like Alan Sealy, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Mukul Kesavan and Vikram Seth but also, with over six million copies being sold in twenty years, spurred the sales of SAWE. The novel brought to the surface the distinctly precarious and marginal space which female writers had been occupying for long and finally compelled readers, critics and reviewers to be seriously engaged with novels by female writers.
Roy’s novel brought about a new trend in the publishing and marketing of SAWE. Roy, her agent and her publisher embarked on a concerted and coordinated promotional tour around the globe and they publicized and promoted the novel and her ‘home-grown’ and ‘authentically’ Indian image through every medium possible in an attempt to boost sales. The discovery of Roy’s novel and its bidding were disseminated in the global media in such way that lent a fairy tale appeal to Roy. Random House made a lucrative contract with an advance (more than 1.5 million dollars) unheard of for a debut in the history of publishing to date. The novel was extensively proffered as a new ‘found’ jewel in the crown from India, an object of desire and its author was presented as a home-grown product, an indigenous writer, which heightened the authenticity of the novel, thereby the increase in sales. Its opening was extracted in “Granta 57: India! The Golden Jubilee, Spring 1997” issue alongside writings by Anita Desai, R. K. Narayan, Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Seth. Michael Ondaatje and William Dalrymple. A raft of rave reviews of the novel and Roy’s interviews were published in leading literary journals and globally recognized newspapers for its promotion, circulation and consumption. Then the story of the manuscript’s journey was told and re-told around the world. Roy took about four and a half years to finish the novel. She handed over the manuscript to Punkaj Mishra, the then commissioning editor in the New Delhi branch office of Harper Collins. He was, after reading the manuscript, overcome with excitement, so much so that he jumped off a train at a distant station to wake up Roy with a late-night congratulatory phone call. He then took the plane to London on his own volition and gave the manuscript to the British literary agent David Godwin who flew to New Delhi within four days of receiving the manuscript. He tracked down Roy at the top of a narrow New Delhi stairway and signed her up on the spot. This marketing strategy has become iconic in the South Asian and in the global publishing scene – a strategy which is being still followed, sometimes in different forms.
To wind up my discussion, Booker winning South Asian novels as well as the shortlisted and the longlisted ones and the prize itself elicit unfavorable criticisms from a section of South Asian readers, critics and reviewers. These commentators, first of all, contend that the Booker is itself imperialist and (neo)colonialist in character, that it promotes a handful of South Asian writers in English – they are either winners or shortlisted/longlisted – to represent the whole corpus of SAWE and thus it pushes South Asian vernacular writers towards an abyss or a total disappearance from world literature and that it has made SAWE into a marketable commodity and a consumption item in the West. Secondly, they claim that these novels have won the Booker Prize or they have been shortlisted/longlisted for the same because they have Orientalized and exoticized South Asia. These observations are important and we, while reading SAWE, need to take them into account, but we cannot dismiss the realities portrayed in these novels as simply exoticized and Orientalized. The major problems with these commentators are that they look at these novels from a nativist perspective, that they raise their voice against these novels not for literary merits but mainly for market values and reader reception and that they subscribe to a utopian history and expect an ideal South Asia by disregarding its complex socio-cultural and political realities. In the case of the Booker, they focus exclusively on its commercial aspect and on its imperialist and (neo)colonialist gaze by overlooking its multicultural consciousness, its postcolonial cachet and its significant contribution to the growth and to the global visibility of SAWE. What we need to do in this case is that we must question the Booker, but at the same time we must acknowledge its contribution to the growth and to the global success of SAWE. Moreover, we should bear in mind that literary awards such as the Booker perhaps can never move beyond quibbles and controversies because “scandal, or the threat and promise of scandal, is constitutive of prizes” (English 113), because there are no universally acknowledged standards for appraising the value of a creative piece and because, to quote Mendelsohn and Szalai, “the criteria for excellence in literature — are entirely subjective, whether among readers, critics or prize juries” (Whom or What Are). Even with the best of intentions, the jury members will never be able to reach a perfectly unbiased and objective verdict since they are shaped by their own tastes and subjectivities and, as humans, they are likely to be influenced by personal and social realities, market forces, publishing cultures and reader expectations.
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Date: December 24, 2021