“To Commonwealth or not to Commonwealth?” that is a question. Last night the Commonwealth Games kicked off in Glasgow with much royal hoopla, metaphorical ceremonial caber tossing, a big thistle called Clyde and Rod Stewart. The debate here in the UK has been about whether or not the Commonwealth Games is international enough to be a true exhibition of the best of athletics. Of the top 10 nations in the medal table at the London Olympics in 2012, only two are taking part in the Commonwealth Games: the nations that make up the UK and Australia. What – no US, no China, no Russia or France or Germany? Afraid not. No Europe? Well, there’s Cyprus. Oh.
Also yesterday the publishing world announced the long list for the Man Booker Prize, this year expanded from its former world of Commonwealth writers to a truly international field. The Olympics of literary prizes, perhaps? Well, it’s certainly in the running for a medal. In a world we’re told is getting smaller, more linked up and “global” what do these differing entry strategies tell us? What does it say when a sporting occasion is sticking and a literary prize chooses to twist?
The organisers of the Commonwealth Games are very keen to point out its positively international field – where else might you see Maltese sprinters, Bangladeshi shot putters and swimmers butterflying in trunks emblazoned with the flag of the Solomon Islands? Critics argue that the best at these disciplines are from the US, Germany and China so we’re watching an event from nations that may happen to have been under the yoke of British colonial rule – so who cares now?
The chair of the Booker judges, the philosopher AC Grayling, said that this year’s list represented “a vintage year” after he’d tried to steer his fellow judges away from a list of eminent former Booker-bothering authors and urged close reading of high-quality books regardless of the names on the dust jackets. It’s a good list – Joseph O’Neill, Neel Mukherjee, Ali Smith, David Mitchell – and not a list that seems to have genuflected to market forces so much as an objective attempt to nail a decidedly suggestive thing.
There are those that will point in the direction of the Booker’s possible floodgate-opening to American authors, those who often bestride the English-language publishing world like giants. With big names come column inches and interest from the world’s largest market but then smaller names can become big when they profit from a tighter list. Context is becoming less important in novels as we become familiar enough with faraway places to be able to fully enjoy books written there.
What about running, jumping and swimming? There’s no need for context there, it means nothing. But I’ll be tuning in to see those utterly unrepresentative athletes such as Usian Bolt and Mo Farah as well as Tonga’s finest long jumper because there’s more to sport than winning and writing has nothing to do with flying a flag. If neither floats your boat, remember there’s a giant thistle, called Clyde.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle.