Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Man Booker Prize

OK, here I go making myself unpopular, yet again.

I can’t help myself. 

I try not to say what I’m thinking, but somehow it slips out anyway.

I’m sitting here metaphorically scratching my head and wondering when inclusivity becomes monopoly. Is that what I mean?

I’ll explain.

I was reading about the new rules for the Man Booker Prize.

This year the prize has been extended to include pretty well anyone who writes in the English language.

On the face of it, I’m absolutely fine with that. Let’s give prizes to the best books!

Previously the prize was for writers from Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries. There are more than fifty of them. That’s a lot of writers with very various experiences of the World, and with a wide variety of choices for writing subjects. 

There are only so many places on any book prize list. The judging panel has to read the books for judging. It’s a pretty big task.

This year, with the inclusion of writers in the English language from countries outside the Commonwealth, and let’s not pretend we’re not talking about the Americans, there are vastly more eligible authors, but there are the same number of slots to fill.

Wiki lists 236 American literary awards. It lists 64 British literary awards, and, not for nothing, it lists just 8 Commonwealth literary awards, including the Man Booker, which, of course, no longer exists in this format. 

Many writers living in Commonwealth countries have small audiences at home for their work. Let’s look at Australia as an example. Everybody’s heard of Australia. We’re all familiar with the culture. It’s a first world country with an active, lively and talented writing community. DBC Pierre, Peter Carey (twice) and Thomas Keneally have all won the prize since I’ve been following the lists. If you expand the region, include New Zealand and call it Australasia, you can add Eleanor Catton and Keri Hulme to those men and redress the gender balance into the bargain. 

The combined population of Australia and New Zealand is about twenty-seven million people, and they live on the other side of the planet from most of the big publishing houses. That causes a couple of problems for writers from that neck of the woods. Firstly, their home audiences are small, so domestic advances and royalties are small. Secondly, bigger markets, the UK and America are secondary, and therefore more difficult to gain access to. And, not for nothing, books are expensive in Australasia, because paper is bloody heavy, and imports have to travel a very long way.

Don’t forget I’m not talking about Trinidad and Tobago... Yes I know you’ve heard of it, but it is a little more obscure than Australia. I use it as an example, because VS Naipaul, who won his Man Booker prize in 1971, has his origins there.

The Man Booker shortlist for 2013 looked like this:
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, who is from Zimbabwe. Her contemporary novel is set in her homeland.  
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, who is from New Zealand, and went on to win the prize. Her novel, which takes place in the 19th century is also set in her homeland.
Harvest by Jim Crace, who is English. His novel takes place in 18th century rural England.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. She is often described as Indian American. She was born in London and her parents were from West Bengal, so I suppose she might also be loosely described as British Asian. Her novel is set in India in the 1960s.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, who is Canadian, and set her novel in modern Tokyo.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, who is Irish and set his novel in the biblical Middle East.

We don’t have the Man Booker shortlist for 2014 yet, but we don’t need it. Or, at least, I don’t need it in order to make my point.

What we do have is the Man Booker long list for 2014. On it, there are thirteen books. The list looks like this:
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
J by Howard Jacobson
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Us by David Nicholls
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
Orfeo by Richard Powers
How to be Both by Ali Smith
History of the Rain by Niall Williams

That’s more than double the number of books on the 2013 shortlist, but we can all clearly see how dramatically the diversity has been cut. This list contains six British writers, two from Ireland, four Americans and one Australian. There are no representatives from the Indian subcontinent, from Canada or from anywhere in Africa. Only one of more than fifty countries currently part of the Commonwealth (Ireland no longer belongs) is represented. 

The four American novelists all essentially write about modern America in the books that are listed, because we don’t get enough of that already! (Yes, people, that was sarcasm). Perhaps I should simply be grateful that two of them are women.

I’m going to backtrack, and say that I’m sure all of these are fine novels. Not for nothing, they’re on the Man Booker long list. 

This is critical.

Publishers may only submit a limited number of books published between specified dates. The number of submissions a publisher may make is dependent on how many of its novels appeared on previous lists. 

A publisher with two fabulous, worthy books next year cannot submit both of those books, even if they are published between the specified dates, if it does not have a book long-listed this year. That publisher will have to choose one book and submit it. 

Chatto and Windus, and Sceptre had two long-listed books each in 2014, so in 2015 they can each nominate two novels for next year's prize, increasing their chances of getting more books on next year's long list. If they had more books on the long list they’d be able to submit more books for the next prize. Publishers with no long-listed books get one shot next year.

So, any agent worth his salt will take his best books to those publishers with the best listings records. Those authors might well be encouraged to take smaller advances for those books in the hope that they’ll be nominated and potentially long-listed, and make money off the back-end, by which I mean royalties. Those writers will be told that it’s all swings and roundabouts. It isn’t.

I'm putting my face here, because after this blog
I doubt you'll ever see it next to the words
"Man Booker nominated author"
In the end, my fear is that the long list will end up being dominated by two or three publishers, and we can all guess which publishers they will be. Chatto and Windus belongs to Harper Collins, and Sceptre belongs to Hodder and Stoughton, which also has a book on the long list. 

I’m sure you take my point.

It isn’t easy to get a book published, and when a book is published it isn’t easy to get it noticed. That becomes more difficult when you add gender and ethnicity to the mix. Being long-listed for an award makes a huge difference to the visibility of a book to the reading public.

It isn’t difficult to find American books in any book store in any city in any country on the planet. But there are great writers, writing in English in a vast range of cultures. Many of them live in the Commonwealth.

As a general rule, I’m in favour of inclusion, and I believe that talent will always rise to the top.

I wonder if the new rules for the Man Booker prize rather mitigate against diversity and inclusivity. I don’t question the organisers' intentions, and I hope that I’m proven wrong, but, honestly, I’m not terribly hopeful.

Oh, and just for good measure, two of the six judges for the Man Booker this year are also American, another is a pure scientist and AC Grayling, who is chairing the panel is a philosopher. Well... OK then.


  1. Sorry you've scuppered your chances for the prize with this rant, Nicola, but thanks for posting it. At the time of the Commonwealth Games, it's good to flag up the writers of these former British colonies and it's a pity they're not more in the public eye.
    I didn't know the thing about publishers on the previous shortlist getting a second chance to submit which, as you say, isn't so good for authors. Not sure how this will trickle down to the pondlife, but you might have some views?

    1. I only ever had two hopes of getting on that particular list, and one of them was Bob... Smiles.

  2. I can see the benefit of widening appeal, but would suggest maybe offering secondary prizes in a few categories, not by genre but by publisher type (YA, small press, etc)?

    If I am wrong I am sure your readers can tell me why. :)