Last week, one “Booker” was awarded (the Russian) and two other “Booker”-like longlists were released, the Man Asian on Dec. 4 and the and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), popularly known as the “Arabic Booker,” on Dec. 6.
Together, these prizes accept submissions from giant swaths of the writing world. Man Asian accepts entries from some 30-odd counties, including the world’s two most populous nations, although these submissions must be made in English. The IPAF accepts entries from anywhere in the world — as long as they take the form of Arabic novels.
The Man Asian thus assumes a much more complex (read: impossible) task. In India alone, there are more than two dozen languages in wide use, and English is not among them. The Man Asian thus must consider works in translation, and judge “classics” against new work, translations against books written in English. This year, the Man Asian has longlisted an old book by Orhan Pamuk, Silent House, that’s newly available in English translation. Even in its short lifetime, the Man Asian has gone from a manuscript prize to a book prize to a prize soon to be without a sponsor.
But, through their relatively short lifespans, the IPAF, the Russian Booker, and the Man Asian have all served to globalize a certain Western “prize aesthetic,” a literary horserace that crowns a few books as the year’s best.
The system does have its plus sides. Among global Arabic prizes, the IPAF has been one of the few that’s relatively transparent. As with the Man Booker, we don’t know which titles have been submitted to or called in by IPAF judges. However, the IPAF judges have largely been trusted figures, available for public scrutiny and interview, and seem to have chosen the winning books (mostly) because of a (mostly) genuine passion for them, rather than from any political considerations. And certainly it’s been a boon for Western publishers looking for new Arabic fiction. In the past, publishers relied almost entirely on translator-informants. Now they can look at the longlists themselves and ask: Hey! Why isn’t there any Rabee Jaber in English?
However, as with other globalized initiatives (boxed cereal, t-shirts, coffee shops), there is a “one size fits all” nature to these prizes that’s not entirely cheering. The downsides of the Man Asian are clear: How is it possible to say that a handful of books in English showcase the best of writing traditions in Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, Marathi, Japanese, Korean, Farsi, Chinese, and, and, and? The downsides of the IPAF are open to argument. Yes, it has probably improved visibility of Arabic-writing authors (internationally). But does it stifle creative use of language? Does it feed and strengthen book culture and literary development among Arab authors, publishers, and readers? Or does it encourage Arabic-writing authors to look more and more to non-Arab audiences?
For English-language readers, though, these longlists certainly are small blessings. A number of excellent books and authors have been recognized on both lists, opening new windows of pleasure and insight, new places hungry readers can look for stylistic, aesthetic, philosophical, and other nourishments.