Judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize to visit Abu Dhabi

The judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize is visiting the capital this week for a public discussion on world literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.

The Man Booker International’s judging panel is chaired by Marina Warner, who says the prize ‘stimulates readers in new directions’. Courtesy Edward Park
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A few weeks ago, the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was clearly shocked to have received one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes for his wartime love story The Narrow Road to the Deep North. "In Australia the Man Booker is sometimes seen as something of a chicken raffle," he joked. "I just didn't expect to end up the chicken." Critics of the headline-grabbing award would concur with Flanagan's apparently off-the-cuff remark. Who is deemed worthy is so subjective that chance is the most certain winner.

As prestigious as its cousin but even more rare, the Man Booker International Prize has honoured five writers for their achievement in literature on the world stage since its inception in 2004. Unlike the original Man Booker, which awards an annual prize to an author for a single exceptional novel, its international equivalent runs biennially and recognises an author for his or her body of work. The next winner will be announced next summer at a ceremony in London.

The process is shrouded in secrecy but shepherding the judges and the longlist is the writer, critic and academic Marina Warner. I have the chance to discuss the prize before she jumped on a flight to Egypt to give the Edward Said memorial lecture at the American University in Cairo. The charming and eloquent Warner begins by explaining where she thinks the Man Booker International fits in the pantheon of literary prizes. “Well, it’s one of the best,” she enthuses. “It is important because it fulfils one of the main tasks of prizes and that is to stimulate readers in new directions, to discover new bodies of literature and individual writers. Secondly, and this is possibly even more important because it precedes the first, it keeps publishers awake. They’re looking all the time for the possible gold at the end of the rainbow, and here you have a prize that opens up the smaller languages, the unknown names.”

One of the next stops on Warner's schedule is New York University Abu Dhabi where the judging panel for the prize will take part in a discussion entitled Where is "World Literature"? Warner will be joined on stage at NYUAD Institute by the novelist Nadeem Aslam; the novelist, critic and professor of English at the University of Oxford, Elleke Boehmer; the editorial director of New York Review Classics, Edwin Frank; and the professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Wen-chin Ouyang. It's a starry literary cast by any measure.

Over the telephone Warner talks volubly but never rambles, keen to pack as much into each answer as possible. She expands at length on who her fellow judges are and how they were selected “to get a sense of this new and exciting map”. The Prize started out with a panel of three judges but in 2013 it was increased to five, presumably in an attempt to cover all bases on Warner’s “map”. However, as this modification was implemented after the furore of the 2011 prize, when one judge resigned in fury at the decision to honour Philip Roth, it is tempting to believe that the motive for change was double-pronged, with the second reason being the assumption that the more judges you have, the greater the effort to reach a fair consensus.

Warner is of the opinion that Roth’s win was “the prize positioning itself too much in relation to the Nobel. I think the judges that year thought it was unfair that he kept being passed over. Certainly we are not minded about whether we want to repair the injustices of the Nobel.”

I want to ask what kind of authors Warner has been reading, but it’s been made clear that there should be no questions about which authors are being considered for the prize. Understandably, Warner refuses to be drawn. She does, however, offer intriguing titbits. For the NYUAD panel discussion, the judges intend to “bring in anyone who has had a major prize in the past so as to form a portrait of literature at the moment”. Also, “in many of the books we are reading there is a level of intensity. Many are brief and that brevity helps. There is no sprawl, rather succinct cries of protest and poetically intense visions of experiences.” Finally, there is her surprise confession that “three-quarters of the writers are unfamiliar to me, and I’m quite a reader”.

How hamstrung does she think the prize is by the fact the work has to be “generally available” in English? A great number of books by past winners and nominees of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction have yet to be translated into English.

"Translation has a time-lag," she concedes. "A great Arabic writer like Gamal el-Ghitani, his great masterpiece Zayni Barakat is from 1974 and I think it was translated in 2000 – that's 30 years since he wrote it! But there is more of an interest now for Arabic fiction that is driven by cultural politics."

But, I insist, there is still a time-lag. “There are two problems,” she replies. “Translation is a very difficult art and the translator needs to have a relationship with the work. If the translator just translates the work in front of his or her eyes without discussion with the author, that is not going to be satisfactory – that is like translating a guidebook and treating translation as a portage from one thing to another. Secondly, some of the languages like Chinese and Arabic are difficult and there aren’t so many people who write gracefully in the target language, ie English in this case.”

I stay with Arabic literature and bring in Ouyang, the expert. She agrees that not enough Arabic literature is reaching English-speaking audiences ("English translations occupy the lowest percentage among European translations of Arabic literature") and cites shortage of manpower and lack of funding as the "two main culprits". And yet, she asserts that a noticeable effort is being made. "Recently, there have been more initiatives in making Arabic literature known through translation projects such as Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature, the Library of Arabic Literature (NYU Abu Dhabi), and Bloomsbury Qatar."

Thankfully, discretion is not an issue when it comes to this Tuesday’s panel discussion. First of all, I have to ask her about that title: Where is “World Literature”? Why “where” and not “what”?

“Well, geographical networks are becoming very popular in literary thinking,” she says. “It’s about what passes borders, who is seen in relation to whom. It has more to do with cartography than history. You used to create historical lineages – the Booker is, in a way, a historical lineage because it is about the British Empire turning into the Commonwealth. Whereas what’s happening now is that there are a lot of people talking at cross-borders to each other.

“There’s a worry,” she goes on, “which I can tell you we plan to discuss, that writers are now writing for world literature rather than writing for local audiences. These local audiences sometimes don’t exist in great numbers – they certainly don’t exist as a market. Tim Parks, a former judge, has raised this point. Is world literature having a negative effect on literature in the sense that literature is losing its particularity, specificity and its local texture and becoming a kind of Coca-Cola?”

On this question of whether writers can and should go global the other panellists are all are happy to give a sneak preview of their thoughts via email. I play devil’s advocate: Surely all writers should “go global” and secure the widest popular readership.

Boehmer is sceptical. “Not all writers would want to go global as they feel this might erase or dilute the special insight or focus that their local or regional culture – and language – might give. In particular ‘Anglobalisation’ on an American model is seen to mean, inter alia, writing characters understandable to the US/UK market, not to one’s own people. Whereas many writers retain the sense that there’s an obligation for a writer to speak to and for one’s own.”

Isn’t the alternative, writing that is marked as insular and parochial? “The idea that you have to be ‘global’ to avoid being “provincial/parochial’ is something I am suspicious of,” Aslam answers. “There are any number of so-called global writers whose books take place in ‘important’ international locations but whose mindsets are deeply parochial. You can write an essential novel about the human condition – which will speak to the deepest concerns of people around the planet – set in a village in Pakistan. The vision, or lack of, is what sets a writer apart, not where he is from.”

Ouyang shares this view of universality being the overruling factor. "I'm not sure the 'global' and the 'local' are necessarily mutually exclusive categories or arenas or spheres," she says. "Some of the most far-reaching novels I have read, let us say, Season of Migration to the North [by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih] is so universal – and I suppose one should make a distinction between universal and global here, precisely because it is a profound reflection on and representation of very 'local' issues, geographically and temporarily.

“What can put such singularity at risk is perhaps that ‘global’ can, on occasions, become a template’ or ‘formula’ that can function like a prison-house for language, style, and ‘content’ and ‘form’. I’m thinking of Hollywood films. Current Chinese blockbusters, which are imitations of Hollywood blockbusters, are painful to watch precisely because they say very little about China, the Chinese, or for that matter, Chinese aesthetics.”

“I don’t think it’s obvious that writers set out or even necessarily want their work to be enjoyed by everyone,” Frank adds. “Perhaps the globe of our glorious globalised world is nothing more than the lowest common denominator of the world’s many different worlds. It is certainly a very specific way of seeing the world, and to that extent threatened by insularity in its own right.”

Warner says that they also want to examine the politics of world literature from different angles. “For example, is American literature in world literature or is it something separate? And in some respects the term ‘world literature’ seems to cover non-American or non-­Anglophone literature – sometimes it even seems to apply to non-white literature.” We have veered from “where is” to “what is” world literature, and the latter appears to be just as slippery to pin down.

“I think there are certain things that world literature seems to beckon towards,” Warner says, rising to the challenge. “For example, some of these writers are political, they are giving an account of a country which frequently they are no longer living in, sometimes not even in the language they speak there, they have changed their language to accommodate their new audience. What they are doing is bringing news of the situation in their country and testifying.”

For Warner, the rewards of delving into non-Anglophone literature are considerable. “I think the Anglophone literary narrative form is a familiar one to us. The big novel by Jonathan Franzen is a very recognisable beast: you hold a portrait of human relations that are recognisable and so forth. But when you’re reading a Chinese contemporary dissident writer, you’re learning. These are revelatory books about what went on in the Cultural Revolution.

“Literature produced in countries beyond the Anglophone world operates so often under conditions of extreme difficulty and so it tends to be higher in ambition. Also, there’s much less solid social realism going on beyond the Anglophone world. You get descendants of magic realists. You get more allegories due to censorship situations. You read a medieval novel but when you are reading it you realise it is about Assad. It is as if Hilary Mantel wasn’t writing about Tudor England at all but about David Cameron.”

As a result, by reading other cultures’ literature we discover that “fiction is not totemic and monolithic at all”. Instead, we discover “hundreds of different forms – not just genres – a fantastic festivity of invention of these wonderful different ways of telling stories”. What then, I put to her, has she learnt from the Arabic fiction she has read, either for the prize or otherwise?

“There is a lot of poetic language which is one of these unfamiliar modes of storytelling. These writers use language in a deliberate way, a mixture of demotic and classical with lots of metaphorical richness, and the translator has to capture that. We’ve read a lot of Arabic writers but we’re not going to be able to shortlist them all!” she adds, laughing. “And then of course there’s a lot of Arabic writing which doesn’t deal with the present day, which is interesting, this use of history and documents from the past.”

Ouyang says that academics or specialists like herself may have to “take a more proactive role, whether in speaking or writing, in introducing Arabic literature to the broader reading public”. Warner’s exuberance suggests she could conduct her own one-woman campaign. It is certainly strong enough to persuade the doubters to shelve or see beyond the gloomy generalised images of oppression and violence they feel constitute Arabic fiction.

"If you read The Cairo Trilogy [by Nobel-winner Naguib Mahfouz] which has probably the most saintlike and beautiful subjugated woman in all Arab literature, you don't feel 'oh God, I'm reading about a horribly subjugated woman', you feel that you have been allowed to see what it's like to be that kind of person, someone hideously enslaved but also a human being who has her dignity, and that enlarges your understanding. The patriarch is loathsome but you also get to understand him as a human being. Mahfouz doesn't condemn it, he doesn't rant or reconcile it to you because that would be literature at its most stultifying."

The panel discussion also promises to cover “how translation affects writers, their work, and their audiences”. Many readers are still put off by literature in translation, feeling they are losing something from the original. Aslam takes the opposite view. “I cannot imagine my reading life without Márquez, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Miłosz, Bolaño, Pamuk, Mahfouz,” he declares. “They expanded my world but also made it suddenly intimate.” Warner acknowledges the reluctance among some readers but believes “a lot of this is custom and habit” which not only “can be changed but is being changed”.

“Other prizes have helped fantastically to create a strong market in England for translated fiction. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is really good, exciting and exemplary, and the other one is the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize which does poetry as well.”

I tell Warner that one way in which the Man Booker International Prize differs from these prizes is that its “foreign” winners are all household names: Ismail Kadare in 2005, Chinua Achebe in 2007, Alice Munro in 2009, Roth in 2011 and Lydia Davis in 2013. “Well, I don’t think Lydia Davis was a household name,” she says defensively. “Do you?” We agree to disagree. I go out on a limb and ask if this year they might break with tradition and go with a relative unknown to the Anglophone world.

“I wouldn’t want to pick someone new just because of novelty,” she replies carefully, “but I think that the shortlist we want is a reading list of eight books that we would want our nearest and dearest to read. Absolutely all of them will be completely deserving of the prize.”

She pre-empts my last question. “It’s been a delight for me. Most judges don’t feel the same way because the reading is such a slog. But for me you’re basically just reading wonderful things all the time.”

• Where Is “World Literature”? is on Tuesday from 6.30pm to 8pm at the NYUAD Institute. To register, visit nyuad.nyu.edu

Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.