Prestige and Prejudice in Publishing Prizes: The Man Booker Longlist

The Man Booker Longlist 2017 was announced on 26 July and book bloggers, vloggers and reviewers alike have raised the debate again of whether these awards really matter. Being the unique snowflake that I am, here is my tuppence-worth on the subject (I’m British, we say tuppence, not two cents).

For those of you outside the book-nerd sphere, it’s like a really niche version of the Oscar’s but for publishing.

First of all, the books:

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My initial response was surprise at the fact that I had heard of nine of the thirteen books before. This never happens to me; I’m usually left feeling out of the publishing loop when I’m faced with the usual list of obscure authors and titles. Even more exciting is that of those nine, I wanted to read five of them anyway, which were The Underground Railroad, Swing Time, Autumn, Exit West, and 4 3 2 1. Now that I’ve had a look at the blurbs, I’m considering picking up The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Home Fire.

Why is this surprising? Because ever since I became aware of the Man Booker Prize, it’s felt too high-brow, too “literary” and just outright unreachable for me. The books are traditionally presented as tomes of great merit, only for the most intelligent readers. I’ve been convinced that I just won’t “get” what they’re trying to say or do and therefore have shied away from trying out the titles that are new to me.

This is irrational, obviously. Why, of all things, should I fear a list of books? Maybe it’s just the aura of prestige that surrounds the prize. I have a mental image of the judges discussing the list in hushed tones in an old-fashioned parlour room with leather armchairs, a fireplace and portraits of lords and ladies. In reality, their decisions are probably made within the depths of Gmail.

Literary prizes in general have only come to my attention in the past few years, from the Pulitzer to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, of which I’ve reviewed the 2017 winner. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people who reads their longlists every year without fail, just because they’re in the running for a prestigious prize. However, it’s been interesting to be part of the conversation about why these books in particular are considered the best in publishing over the last twelve months.

For instance, some authors seem to crop up time and time again on the Man Booker lists, like Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Mohsin Hamid and Sebastian Barry. Does the fact they’ve been on it before make their chances of being considered in the future more likely? Are debut authors less likely to make their way onto the list? By including more familiar names, does it make the prize appear more authoritative, because if they’re already successful writers, they will surely produce the best books? Like with most things, I haven’t got a clue, but the marketability of certain names could influence the way the lists are chosen.

We can’t ignore that literature is inherently subjective and every reading experience will differ. So how can we judge thirteen books that are so different from one another in everything from subject to narrative style?

And then, the big question in entertainment: does it promote diversity of gender, race and sexuality, in both the authors and the characters? Is this something that should come into our judgement, or should we look at the books in isolation, regardless of context and representation? Diversity is highly topical, especially in publishing, right now and I can’t help but wonder how this impacts long-running prizes like the Man Booker.

I think that the Man Booker Prize has influenced what my TBR is looking like, so perhaps what matters most is that it is promoting literature to the public that they may not have come across before or weren’t sure about reading. I’m not going to read them all because a few of them sound like the furthest thing from my taste, but I’ll be intrigued to see who wins. I’ll be even more intrigued to see the subsequent analysis of why they won, because you can guarantee that someone will be unhappy about it. This is where diversity comes back to the forefront; if they are deemed representative of one group, they’ll be criticised for excluding another. Take Days Without End, a story that explores a gay relationship. I haven’t read it, but what if it doesn’t talk about women, or non-white people? Does that make it less worthy of winning?

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Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which I read and reviewed in July, discusses diversity in film awards, but it’s applicable to literature too. She says that as soon as something is highlighted as “diverse”, it suddenly carries a huge burden as it is seen as representative of all diversity. What this means is that if the story, the director or the cast are outside of Hollywood’s standard narrative (not white, not male, not straight etc.), it becomes the flag-bearer for who they are representing. If it fails, then it sets a precedent that anything like it will also fail, and the industry refuses to invest in more “experimental” films that look at diversity. It’s a lot of pressure for a two-hour film, or a 300 page paperback.

Think of Wonder Woman. Thankfully, it blew the box office numbers out of the water but if it had been a flop, the response would be that people just don’t want female superheroes at all.

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One movie was responsible for whether or not more women would be written into roles like that. I’m not explaining it very well, so I strongly recommend picking up her essay collection. She’s much more succinct and actually makes sense.

All in all, a film, TV show or book can’t be everything for everyone. It’s only one voice, telling one story at a single point in time. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing TED talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ is a must-watch, as I know that I have made a hash-job of this.

I’m excited that the the longlist this year has such a wide range of voices. My eyes have been opened to new authors and new perspectives. Of course, I love reading diversely so I will appreciate and applaud diversity if I see it in the longlisted works. What I have to make sure of, is that I don’t think it’s good literature just because of the representativeness, but in the book’s own right.

Do you take notice of literary prizes? And what should a book have to be a winner?

Best wishes,

Siobhán

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