Opening the Man Booker Prize to US writers is a bad idea. It would be like combining baseball and cricket: you might argue it would create the best of both worlds, increase your audience and create a global phenomenon from two close practices. Actually you’d just make both worse.
The Booker would lose its distinctiveness. At the minute it’s the flagship for British writing; a showcase to the world of how Britain continues to "punch above its weight" as a politician might say. We might be happy to sell off our companies, but this is an area where we still care about provenance and identity.
Of course that is only really the start. It’s the Commonwealth mix that so appeals about the Booker; yes it always has a fair few British writers but it’s so much more than that. Its richness lies in that blend of voices from Canada to Malaysia, Ireland to India (even though Ireland isn’t in the Commonwealth). Adding the States could just swamp that balance and actually end up reducing the variety. It’s unique and makes the Booker Prize different.
If the Booker wants to compete with other prizes it shouldn’t copy them, it should carry on being distinctive.
By letting in US writers, Commonwealth writers would undoubtedly lose out. We live in an attention economy and prizes are one of the brokers of that world. Some American writers are, to be fair, pretty good so less attention would inevitably fall on the existing countries' writers. Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon et al don’t want for noise. At the minute the Booker is a great place for African and sub-continental writers to find real media exposure in the West; it is a commercial focus for literary publishing in the UK. Both have real value, and both would be diluted.
What would US letters gain from the change? Precious little. They already have big awards, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. I’m sure the Booker would count for something but it would never amount to the prestige of home-grown awards and the media just wouldn’t be as interested. It’s hard to imagine the Booker being more than a second tier prize for the big names, bookshops and readers of the US.
France has the Prix Goncourt, Germany has the German Book Award (which was modelled on the Booker) and the UK, with its strange legacy of the Commonwealth, has the Booker. They represent strong traditions of literary heritage and, in their territories, matter: they are arbiters of quality, drivers of sales and symbols of culture.
That status requires protection. Prizes are defined by what they exclude as well as what they let in. There is nothing wrong with celebrating writing from certain areas. Indeed, the focus that brings is hugely beneficial in highlighting writing that might otherwise get glossed over.
A swollen and unwieldy Booker Prize would lose its profile and purpose, it would be less special, not more, so universal as to be bland, and would struggle to gain purchase in the US. A loss to writers, publishers and bookshops to be sure, but also to readers.
Michael Bhaskar is digital publishing director at Profile Books. He is on Twitter as @ajaxlogos