When the Marxist art critic John Berger won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1972, his riposte to the judges was exemplary. Grateful for their recognition of his experimental novel, he nevertheless balked at the idea of taking money from Booker McConnell, a company whose “extensive trading interests” and commercial practices, were abhorrent to him. Berger saw Booker’s plantations as a classic example of how Britain had produced “the modern poverty of the Caribbean” and he argued that that “one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came.” In an inspired gesture that annoyed both sides of the political spectrum Berger donated half of the prize money to the Black Panthers.
Ironically, Berger’s denunciation of the Booker, in its fourth year, helped to make it prominent. In time it also became notorious for its contentious judging rather than literary merit (one panel couldn’t decide between a Rushdie and Coetzee novel, judges on another demanded Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting be removed from a shortlist). But gradually, despite, further denunciations, the prize (renamed the Man Booker prize after an investment firm assumed sponsorship in the new century) became the premier English language award for literary fiction.
It is a further irony that this year’s winner, Marlon James, the first Jamaican to win the prize in its 47-year history, should do so at a time when exactly the sort of issues that Berger raised are back in the headlines. If nothing else, Berger would be delighted to see that the Caribbean has now developed a vibrant literary sensibility, one that is more than capable of probing its own dark past. (James’s previous novel, a finalist for the 2010 US National Book Critics Circle Award, is a powerful historical novel of life on a Jamaican plantation.)
A Brief History of Seven Killings, James’ complex, humorous, uneven foray into politics in the Manley years, is entirely Jamaican, but its success ought to be celebrated throughout the Caribbean. James’ exuberance, his confident yielding to the temptations of what another James famously called the “loose, baggy monster” of a large novel, is suggestive of how far West Indian fiction has advanced in recent years, not least in its use of literary registers and devices that used to belong, almost exclusively, to writers serving large, foreign (predominantly American and European) audiences.
Speaking at the Bocas literary festival in 2012, James lamented the musty notion of a Jamaican or West Indian novel (villages, religion, stock characters) and said that younger writers, like himself, ought to tackle contemporary life and wrestle, unashamedly, with the region’s racial, sexual, and political questions. Then, having warmed up with two historical novels, he delivered.
In “From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself” a moving account of the torments of adolescence as a sensitive, intelligent gay boy in Kingston, James recalls that “I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know.” Only when he left a dead-end advertising job in Kingston for a teaching post in Minnesota, did he find the mix of tolerance, humour and cultural energy that let him flourish.
Sadly one need not be a novelist seeking subtle connections to know that a comparable sense of alienation has bedeviled many other West Indian artists and writers —white, black, brown and in-between, gay, straight, old and young — for decades. With numbing regularity they have been forced abroad, returning home belatedly, after achieving success in foreign literary markets.
Modestly, James has expressed the hope that the award will encourage the literary world to take a new wave of West Indian writing far more seriously. This is already happening and will almost certainly continue – international trade publishing is always hungry for new talent and has learned how to spot it quite well. What is less certain is how well governments in the region will be galvanized by this win and support the handful of literary festivals, cultural exhibitions and workshops that have bravely advertised and nurtured writers like Marlon James during their lean years.
John Berger described literary prizes as “distasteful” but conceded that “they can act as a stimulus – not to writers themselves but to publishers, readers and booksellers … so the basic cultural value of a prize depends upon what it is a stimulus to.” In personal terms, James’s prize all but ensures a long and successful career, but the cultural value of his victory, the ways that it will give momentum to other regional writers, will be determined largely by governments, corporations and other institutions that have the resources to sponsor culture.