“Booker Novels”

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What is the significance of a literary award to the field of Indian English literature? Perhaps the question in itself appears rather presumptuous considering that a literary award, even a prestigious one, is a small affair compared to the goings on in a nation’s literary scene. But the fact that such a suggestion can be made indicates the forces that constitute canon and impact the field at large. The direction that Indian English novel took since the time Midnight’s Children got the Booker prize in 1981 is conditioned by the transnational capital of which the Booker Prize is emblematic.

There is an interesting ambivalence about the Booker. Several of the Booker winning novelists are non-British; so much so that the prize has come to be associated with the postcolonial literary productions. On the other hand, the endowment came from the Booker company which made its fortunes from the sugar factories in Guyana. The reference to Booker in the Caribbean poet David Dabydeen’s “Song of the Creole Gang Women” is revealing:

Wuk, nuttin bu wuk

Maan noon an night nuttin bu wuk

Booker own me patacake

Booker own me pickni.

Pain, nuttin bu pain

Waan million tous’ne acre cane

So this colonial history of Booker sits ambivalently with its above-mentioned association with postcolonialism. The ambivalent nature of Booker doesn’t end here. Pico Iyyer and Richard Todd have alluded to the proliferation of fiction from the former colonies that have won the Booker and have suggested it to be the ‘Empire writing back’. On the other hand, Booker has been a major figure in the commercialization of English-language literature in the global market. Thus, the Booker prize may also be seen as a colonial patron within whose premises the postcolonial carnival is underway. This ambivalence is very much present in the postcolonial literary productions too. The question that postcolonial theory so consciously and so eloquently has repeatedly dealt with concerns its production and circulation within the discursive locations put in place and maintained by colonial and neocolonial forces. The ambivalence that wraps Booker prize thus reveals that we have to be wary about the value-accumulation it enables. We have learnt from Bourdieu that literary prizes are part of the complex processes that produce cultural capital within the aesthetic field. Therefore, the starting point for this enquiry would be that the tag ‘Booker Winner’ is not an automatic signifier of the value of a novel.

An assessment of the impact of Booker prize on Indian English fiction may proceed in different directions. For example we can start by remembering that Booker prize is endowed by the Booker plc which has rather unflattering colonial credentials. Such an approach might take us down a polemical path where we notice how Booker Prize as an institution has entrenched the colonial / neo-colonial conditioning of cultural production in our society. From this perspective, it might be illustrative to study the impact of Booker Prize and its widely visible commodification of cultural productions on the field of Indian fiction in other languages. If by 1997 a situation arises in which Salman Rushdie confidently declares that “the prose writing … by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced … in the so-called ‘vernacular languages'”, we may be justified in feeling that the neo-colonial mechanism has worked effectively to perpetuate a hierarchical structure. The production of cultural hierarchy through an institution like Booker prize plays an important role in engendering a situation which obtains the structure of feeling that a stronger body of work is being done in English language. This view which implicitly holds the Booker prize responsible for the continuation of active colonial structures in the field of culture is not unreasonable though it is a cynical approach, hence in need of revision.

Another approach to understand the impact of Booker Prize might take us through the processes of the media, the market and all the manoeuvre surrounding it. We begin to notice that Booker Prize is not merely a recognition of literary merit. It drags the literary practice into the market jugglery in which culture becomes a decked up product. In the process the celebrated postcolonial novels, their oppositional thematic notwithstanding, simply become fodder to the market grind. In fact in his persuasive book The Postcolonial Exotic Graham Huggan develops the argument that Booker Prize is one of the means by which postcolonialism is marketed in the West. Despite being convincing, this approach is also rather cynical. Because, here again we consider with finality the determining power of the market forces over cultural production. That is, rather than recuperating the cultural products from the absolute hold of the market, we are thus resubmitting it. I think we can benefit from the awareness that institutions like Booker Prize are not natural arbitrators of value; that the entire process of conferring prizes includes the generation of a value that furthers the marketing needs and then legitimising such a value. We might in our critiques expose the structures that confer transnational significance to postcolonial cultural products under the aegis of institutions like Booker Prize. Even as we thus refuse to attach the value-conferring authority to the Booker, we might yet not want to dismiss the cultural products. We should insist on enquiring into the values these postcolonial cultural products generate.  My contention is that in Indian English fiction one may find a distinct type of novel writing which  may be ironically called ‘Booker novels’.

The category ‘Booker novels’ includes those that have received the Booker prize and many others that haven’t. The characterising features of a ‘Booker novel’ in Indian English fiction are: they are produced by authors who acquire a certain transnational purchase; they are published by international publishing houses for the global market; they are read by a transnational readership; they are commented upon by international scholars; they are prescribed for study in colleges and universities in different parts of the world; they have an implicit or explicit subversion of the nation-state. These characteristics might tempt us to pursue the earlier mentioned polemics and see these novels as interpellating their readers as the subjects of the transnational capital.

I must admit that irony should consume this view and we must argue that if we use the word Booker novels to refer to a type of Indian English novels, then there is a privileging of the Booker prize as a legitimising force that indexes value. I will move on to another view and suggest that may be we can talk about polemical novels in another post.

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