Huffing and puffing over the Man Booker Prize

In the 12/4/14 New York Review of Books, a piece on the 2013 winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction in English (James Walton’s “Star Fiction”, reviewing The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton) begins with this year’s controversy over the prize (with the bit I’m going to focus on bold-faced):

The year 2014 was famously the first time that Americans have been eligible for the [Man Booker Prize], alongside those from Britain, the British Commonwealth, and Ireland. It was a change of rules that had been discussed for years, but when the decision was finally announced, the reaction was not – I think it’s fair to say – wholly positive. The 2011 winner Julian Barnes called it simply “a bad idea,” while Philip Hensher, former judge and shortlistee, wrote a piece in The Guardian headlined, “Well, that’s tbe end of the Booker prize, then.” Just days before this year’s ceremony Peter Carey – who holds dual US-Australian citizenship, and is one of the prize’s few double winners – lamented the “particular cultural flavour” that will be lost: “There was and there is a real Commonwealth culture. It’s different. America doesn’t really feel to be a part of that.”

Ah, the US isn’t really Commonwealth material, Carey sniffs, alluding to a fantasized cultural commonality sentimentally uniting the Commonwealth of Nations under the reigning monarch of the UK (currently Queen Elizabeth II).

Before I go on to the Commonwealth, notes on the Man Booker. The Luminaries, by 28-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton, was “the longest-ever winning novel by the youngest-ever winning novelist”. The 2014 winner is Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan, for The Narrow Road to the Deep North; only two American writers even made it onto the 2014 shortlist.

Now on the Commonwealth of Nations. From Wikipedia:

The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of 53 independent and sovereign states … Most are former British colonies or dependencies of these colonies.

… The symbol of this free association is Queen Elizabeth II who serves as the titular Head of the Commonwealth. This position, however, does not imbue her with any political or executive power over any Commonwealth member states; the position is purely symbolic, and it is the Commonwealth Secretary-General who is the chief executive of the Commonwealth.

… The Commonwealth was first officially formed in 1931 when the Statute of Westminster gave legal recognition to the sovereignty of dominions. Known as the “British Commonwealth”, the original members were the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland [withdrew in 1949], and Newfoundland [became part of Canada in 1949]

… The newest member is Rwanda, which joined on 29 November 2009. The most recent departure was The Gambia, which severed its connection with the Commonwealth on 3 October 2013. [Before that, Zimbabwe withdrew in 2003]

The Commonwealth began with the primarily Anglophone parts of the British Empire (minus the US, because we revolted), and gradually expanded as the Empire broke up. So the pieces of British India — modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — all became members of the Commonwealth, though it’s hard to imagine that these four countries have any fellow feeling for one another. Similarly, it’s hard to see, say, Guyana, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland as having much in common.

There are at least two things that unite many of the remnants of the Empire: a passion for cricket, and severe sodomy laws — both inherited from the UK. On the sodomy laws, I point you to the Labouchere Amendment. From Wikipedia:

Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, commonly known as the Labouchere Amendment, made gross indecency a crime in the United Kingdom. The Act contained no definition of “gross indecency”, as Victorian morality demurred from precise descriptions of activity held to be immoral. In practice, the law was used broadly to prosecute male homosexuals where actual sodomy (meaning, in this context, anal intercourse) could not be proven. The penalty of life imprisonment for sodomy (until 1861 it had been death) was also so harsh that successful prosecutions were rare. The new law was much more enforceable.

Both Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were harshly sentenced under Section 11, and it continues to be the basis for vicious persecution of homosexuals in several African countries that were part of the British Empire and an impediment to liberalization of laws in several other parts, notably India.

But Peter Carey sentimentally celebrates the common culture of the remnants of the Empire (excluding the US), united by reverence for the Queen and respect for the Church of England. (See my rather sour remarks on the theocratic aspects of the monarchy in “Triumphalist bad taste”.)

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