Booked and Busy The Politics of Literary Prizes

Opinion is the basis of all literary prizes. Writing is rewarded by systems and institutions of opinion.

On September 15 2020, the Booker Prize announced what Alison Flood and Sian Cain of The Guardian described as the ‘most diverse Booker Shortlist ever’. The shortlist of six features four writers of colour. Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian American woman, was nominated for The Shadow King. Tsitsi Dangarembga, the Zimbabwean woman whose recent arrest sparked international outrage, was nominated for The Mournable Body. Avni Doshi, an Indian American woman, made the cut for Burnt Sugar, as did Brandon Taylor, a Black American gay man nominated for Real Life. Margaret Busby, the renowned publisher who served as the chair for this year’s judging panel, was effusive about this shortlist. ‘Every book that we’ve chosen makes one bring all one’s attention, emotions, to understanding, what the writer was trying to say…’

So far, 2020 has been a remarkable year for the world and for Black protest. Galvanized by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Black people from all walks of life have been more forceful in their rejection of injustice, marginalization, and exclusion, enveloping parts of the US and the UK in weeks of impassioned street protests that have only begun to cool. A different dimension of protest emerged on literary Twitter in June 2020, when Black authors like Roxane Gay, L.L. McKinney, N.K Jemisin, Tochi Onyebuchi, and Jesmyn Ward used #PublishingPaidMe to highlight the grave inequalities in the publishing industry by revealing their publication advances in comparison to their non-Black colleagues. These rumblings make a perfect backdrop for a Booker shortlist this diverse.

The Mechanics of Literary Prizes

The Booker Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious international book prize. At £50,000 for the winning novel, it is also the richest prize for a single book in English—second only to the International Dublin Literary Award. Now in its 51st year, the Booker claims to reward the ‘finest fiction written in English’, a bold yet justifiable claim. The prize has turbo-charged the careers of many of its winners and shortlistees by introducing them to what is, in effect, a global reading audience. Sometimes it is an anointing for greater things: previous Booker winners like Nadine Gordimer, Kazuo Ishiguro, VS Naipaul, and JM Coetzee have gone on to become Nobel Literary Laureates.

Nevertheless, opinion is the basis of all literary prizes. Writing is rewarded by systems and institutions of opinion. The winner of the Booker, as Ion Trewin, former literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, once said, ‘is the best novel in the opinion of the judges’.

All literary prizes attempt to elide Trewin’s caveat. The elision is instrumental in maintaining the conceit of irrefutable fact often unconsciously ascribed to prizes by the reading public. But how do prize institutions determine what is the best writing from a pile of entries?

The generic prize process has four to five steps. A call for submissions is announced after which submissions are sent to a panel of judges (or, depending on the number of entries, a team of professional readers whittle down the entries before sending them to the judges). The judges deliberate on these entries for weeks or months, individually and collectively, until a set of finalists and, subsequently, a winner of winners, emerges.

If rummaging through a haystack in this manner seems fairly straightforward, we must understand that the readers and judges who administer these processes are humans burdened with a subjectivity that inevitably influences their opinion of exceptional writing. What emerges as the ‘best writing’ at the end of this process is the mean of these subjectivities. And very often, more mundane factors—for example, a power-play among judges—could be at play.

In 2008, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize, The Guardian consulted judges from every year to reveal the inside track of judging the Booker. The revelations sometimes verged on scandalous. Some judges backed out in the middle of deliberations. One judge threatened to throw himself from the balcony. Another insisted that her husband should be selected as the winner. In one year, judges elected to give the prize to a book they thought less deserving because they felt its writer had been pipped at the gate too many times before. There was at least one instance of late-night lobbying calls to other judges. 1990 judge Hilary Mantel, herself a two-time Booker-winning novelist, was withering:

I’m glad I was a Booker judge relatively early in my career. It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horse-trading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.

The Ongoing Redefinition of ‘Important Writing’

Beyond spawning controversy in confined rooms, literary prizes have largely reflected the prevailing prejudices of wider society. For a long time, what was considered the best writing centred the white, male, cis, heterosexual, and able-bodied gaze so much so that this year’s Booker shortlist will appear to be a radical political statement. But literary prizes have always been political. A room of white judges is likely to select books centring whiteness, just as a room of men might privilege the male gaze. The result is what appears to be important writing is unconsciously shaped by the narrow biases of a homogenous few.

Ten years ago, it was unimaginable that the works of four writers of colour would be deemed the most important in English writing. What has changed? Were writers of colour not good enough all the years they have been excluded from prize shortlists? No. The judging process has only now become inclusive. The mean of subjectivities that determines ‘best writing’ now reflects the diversity of cultural backgrounds and identities. Long shut out of prestigious literary rooms, marginalized writers have now cracked the door open

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