The problem with judging books from other cultures, according to a Man Booker juror

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Today a jury of five intellectuals will announce its pick for this year’s Man Booker prize, which awards the “finest in fiction” from the English-speaking world.

The prize has become more inclusive since it was founded in 1969. Two years ago the prize began honoring translators, not just authors, with its International prize money. Three years ago it expanded its criteria to include any book published in English anywhere in the world. But for all the efforts of publishers, editors, and prize committees to include new voices, there are still deep unconscious biases and preferences in the way we ultimately read and judge books.

In an interview with industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, 2017 Man Booker juror Colin Thubron points to these less obvious biases.

Says the travel writer:

Of course what you don’t know, because most of us have a certain kind of background, is whether we’ll be less open to the kind of pacing or priorities that, say, novels have from South Asia, which were some strong contenders. Or even American novelists, there’s some sort of difference there, culturally, which is quite difficult to put your finger on. And it’s that sort of thing–the subconscious thing–that we have to think about.

Thubron is vague in his comments–and has not responded to request to be interviewed—but what he’s saying resonates for anyone who picked up the heavy, polyphonic winning book from 2015, A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. There are tropes, norms, pacing, and structures in the book and many, many others that American and British editors and readers may not have an affinity for. And these can influence whether, and how, books get marketed, not to mention the already subjective process of choosing the best fiction every year.

Padmini Mongia has been teaching Indian writing in English at Franklin & Marshall College in the US for more than 25 years. She says there are a few things American and British readers might find unfamiliar about contemporary Indian literature.

One trope is the plural narrative. She points to the commercially and critically successful Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie. The book is a cacophony of voices, an entire country’s transformation told through a single person’s life. The story of  Saleem Sinai, as a result, is the story of 200 people, she says.

“A novel in India, to explore something specific to that culture, almost inevitably involves myriad voices and contradictions and collision,” says Mongia. “The Saleem Sinai story begins with his grandfather,” she adds. “That’s not a common way of looking at identity in the West. Your grandfather may enter the picture, but your own narrative would not start with your grandfather.” “Indian reality is manifold,” she adds, while “Reality is much more linear [in the US.]”

Mongia says our preferences in language also inform how we read and judge fiction. “In [the US] there’s a real emphasis in precision, making that sentence of yours not have too many clauses, to read in a way that’s more immediately absorbable,” says Mongia. “The Indian mode would be to layer on; Indians would not find it uncomfortable to work through a sentence that went on at some length.”

This lack of precision applies to punctuation, too, which she says is used more emotively by Indian writers. “The basic rules that govern the use of semicolon for instance—even in a comma—I think in India would be used more acceptably for stylistic effect, as opposed to correctness of grammatic usage,” says Mongia.

Reading inclusively goes beyond ticking off boxes for an author’s ethnicity or gender. It’s beyond women reading Dune and men picking up Elena Ferrante. It means reaching for works that challenge us to read differently–to see works we might think of as “difficult” or “abstruse” or even “badly edited” or “badly translated” and consider that there’s something else at work in what we like.

In Thubron’s interview, he argues for a nebulous “merit”-based judgement that eschews authors’ identity. That approach only reinforces the complexity of what he’s describing: What we perceive as quality is not something created or consumed in a vacuum.