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Global Communication Media, Literary Readership, and the Man Booker Prize

Christine Lorre-Johnston, Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle

In the second half of the 20th century, a revolution started, with the advent of television, that still goes on in the 21st century with the current age of the Internet. Parallel to this, in the same period, intensified migration flows have durably transformed nations and communities at large, in particular with the emergence of new diasporas that have redefined the composition of national populations, and consequently the identity of nations. Communication media and population migrations are two significant factors in the current process of globalisation, and they have had an impact on culture, including literature; diaspora literature is now a category of its own, and the mapping of literary readerships has substantially changed over the course of the period considered.

For the past 44 years, starting in 1969, the Man-Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, has been attributed to novels written in the English language by writers from Britain and other English-speaking parts of the world, excepting the United States. The announcement last year that the prize would now be “opened up to writers of any nationality, writing originally in English, for novels published in the UK” (Man Booker website), triggered a wave of protest from various parties, especially former British colonies like Canada. Disagreement focused on arguments of cultural difference and mostly, unfair competition, the US having many writers and a now well-established, influential literary tradition. There is also an economic aspect to the question, as the prize is supposed to lead to “a significant increase in the sales of the winning book” (Man Booker website).

Using concepts introduced by Arjun Appadurai, such as “community of sentiment” (“Topographies of the Self,” 1990) or “diasporic public spheres” (Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 1996), this paper will first examine some of the ways in which writing and reading novels has changed since the 1970s, with the emergence of a postcolonial literature. It will then analyse what is at stake, in a globalised context, in the debates that have accompanied the opening up of the Man Booker Prize to American writers.