Has The Booker Prize changed ‘Literature’?


In 1948, F. R. Leavis’ The Great Tradition set the precedent for a canon of ‘Literature’: works that possess an aesthetic thematic, linguistic and structural superiority. Curating a list of white, middle-class, predominantly male writers, Leavis entrenched within the definition of ‘Literature’ a class, race and gender bias, ensuring that an exclusively Eurocentric gaze was directed towards the canon.

However the establishment of The Booker Prize in 1969 shifted this exclusivity, introducing longlists and shortlists of contemporary fiction that have diversified what we consider to be canonical ‘Literature.’ This year novels tackling issues of immigration, extremism, poverty and the climate crisis, written by writers of Irish, Indian, Jamaican and American heritage, comprise the shortlist.

Yet, for the first time in eight years, we have a Booker shortlist which is skewed towards male authors (Pauls in particular!). With this in mind, how far can we say that the Booker Prize has changed what we consider to be ‘Literature’, through ensuring that it is entirely inclusive of all authors? Or are the ghosts of Leavis’ exclusive canon still prevalent in the Prize today?

Chair of 2023 judges Esi Edugyen defended this year’s shortlist, saying that they prioritised ‘the strength and quality of the work’, with fellow judge Robert Webb sardonically commenting that ‘it was very much the work we were focussing on rather than whether or not they were call Paul.’ However it is no secret that The Booker Prize has a complex relationship with gender inclusion. This year, in particular, we are reminded of 1991, where an all-male Booker shortlist instigated the establishment of The Women’s Prize for Fiction, set up to exclusively celebrate and award works written by women. Indeed, the issues didn’t end in 1991 and remained systemic within the Booker Foundation: until Gaby Wood became Chief Executive in 2015, the advisory committee were still lunching in the ultra-traditional, male-only private members club, The Garrick.

The industry remains in the preserve of the upper and middle classes

The history of the prize is also steeped in problems of race. As its first sponsors, the namesake of the prize was the once-Guyana-based colonial enterprise, the Booker Brothers. This didn’t come without protest, with the 1972 winner, John Berger, donating half of his winning to the British Black Panther movement in adversity to the roots of the Prize being in Britain’s colonial past.

These challenges continued: it was not until nearly 20 years after its establishment that the Booker had its first black judge in Trevor MacDonald, and it was only in 2019 that the joint-winner, Bernadine Evaristo, became the first black woman to win the prize.

These issues of diversity and race are inseparable from such issues within the publishing industry as a whole. The Booker Prize is not only a literary competition but a commercial competition, with publisher battling against one another for the lucrative possibilities that come with their titles making it onto the Booker list. Under the complex nomination guidelines, the amounts of imprints in a press, the amount of previous longlisted and shortlisted books and the amount of previous winners all contribute to a company’s submission allowance. This means power still lies disproportionately in the hands of the larger conglomerate publishing houses. As a case-in-point, five out of the six shortlisted books in 2015 were published by Penguin. What makes this problematic is that there are notoriously issues of diversity and privilege in the publishing industry. Lee and Low Books’ 2019 survey found that 85% of the industry is white, 97% identify as cis men or women, 89% are non-disabled and 81% described themselves as heterosexual.

Additionally, a survey by the UK Publishers Association in the same year found that only 10% of people in the industry grew up in the northern regions of England. This regional imbalance highlights that the industry remains in the preserve of the upper and middle classes.

The history of the prize is steeped in problems of race

If this is the industry on whom we are relying to be nominating diverse and inclusive books, should our concerns with diversity not be repositioned towards the publishing industry itself rather than the prizes which merely feed into its commercialisation? And considering he systemic issues of diversity and inclusion within he industry, we must question whether there yet exists a literary sphere in which The Booker Prize could decisively shift what they would consider to be ‘Literature.’

However, it is inarguable that when we amass the winners of the prize since its establishment, The Booker Prize has challenged the need for stringent classification of fiction, through celebrating rule-defying, globe-spanning, thematically-challenging works, to name just a few winners from recent years: Damon Galgut’s The Promise centres on a family divided by their attitudes to South Africa’s racial apartheid; Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is situated in the working-class tenements of 1980s Glasgow, following the story of a gay teenager and his mother who is an alcoholic; in The Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James explores the backstory of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley; written in both English and her native Malayalam, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things outlines the tragic consequences of India’s caste system. Additionally, the establishment of The International Booker Prize in 2004 for, to award works translated in English, made steps towards greater inclusion through celebrating the literary space outside the UK, Commonwealth and America.

Taking this together with just a snapshot of winners of the previous 225 years, it is undeniable that The Booker Prize spotlights fiction that uproots Leavis’ restrictions and moves towards a mor inclusive canon of ‘Literature.’ However, the systemic issues within the publishing industry need to be tackled if we want a seismic shift in the diversity of the literary sphere.

Illustration: Connie Harston

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