extremely white and incredibly male: the 2014 man booker prize longlist
The longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize was announced last week. It is difficult to speculate as to which individual title is most deserving of the £50,000 prize, given the majority have not been released yet. Based on previous form and those few which are already available, several frontrunners for the prize seem evident.
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) has long been a critical and commercial darling for his richly textured, evocative epics, and a Booker win for his highly anticipated forthcoming The Bone Clocks would be an appropriately-timed accolade. British Jewish author Howard Jacobson won the prize in 2010 for his comic novel The Finkler Question. Ali Smith and Joseph O’Neill are both gifted stylists whose writing is ambitious and formally daring; while ‘our’ Richard Flanagan has been feted by critics locally and internationally for his harrowing but romantic POW epic, The Narrow Road To the Deep North.
2014 is the first year the prize criteria have been broadened to allow the inclusion of all authors writing in the English language, regardless of their nationality. The most significant (and most heavily debated) repercussion of this change was that for the first time, American writers would be eligible for the prize. There were fears that this change signalled the death of recognition for British writing. The quality of literature published in Britain (and other English-speaking countries) is incredibly high, but cannot compete with the sheer quantity of American fiction releases.
Concerns about American dominance have been largely allayed by a list that is still dominated by British and Commonwealth writers. Unfortunately, the 2014 Booker Longlist is notable primarily for its almost total lack of national, cultural or gender diversity. In recent years, the Booker has been notable for the laudable diversity of its longlists and winners, which generally include strong representation of women writers and writers of colour, particularly writers of African and Asian descent. In 2014, the blindingly white longlist of 13 titles contains 1 Australian, 6 British authors, 4 Americans, 1 Irish and 1 Irish/American. Besides Indian-born Neel Mukherjee’s evocation of Calcutta in The Lives of Others, only Flanagan’s Thai-Burmese railway setting and O’Neill’s chronicle of expat life in Dubai express global ambitions in depicting non-Western lived experience.
The Booker Prize is awarded for a single novel, rather than a body of work, but it is widely accepted that some authors receive it as acknowledgement of the consistent quality of their work. Just three of the shortlisted authors are women – Karen Joy Fowler, Siri Hustvedt and Ali Smith. The male nominees include debut and second novelists, while Fowler, Hustvedt and Smith have received nominations for their 7th, 5th and 6th novels respectively (these numbers do not include their various short story collections). All three are accomplished, critically-acclaimed and commercially successful authors, indicating that perhaps the level of general recognition required to elevate a woman writer above the authorial throng is more stringent than that of male writers.
The numbers of novels published by male and female writers are roughly equal. There is no affirmative action at play in the decision-making process of publishers, whose incentive is simply to bring the highest quality writing to the largest possible readership. Yet year after year, women writers are told there is no subconscious bias at work, even though their novels are far less likely to be nominated for awards than those of male writers.
While it is possible to pull and shape the longlist data to fit depending on one’s intentions, there is a clear pattern at work in the dearth of longlisted and prizewinning women writers compared to their male contemporaries. This year’s judging panel was made up of four men and two women, and according to chair of the judges AC Grayling, ‘our guiding principal [in selecting the longlist] was merit. We didn’t ask about the nationality or gender, there was no question of tokenism.’ But it is not tokenism to require that unconscious biases be addressed, nor to demand that a prize which claims to reward ‘the best original novel’ truly offers all eligible books equal ground on which to stake their claim for recognition.
The 2014 Man Booker Prize Longlist
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking, American)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus, Australian)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail, American)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre, American)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape, British)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound, British)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre, British)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus, British)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton, British)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate, Irish/American)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books, American)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, British)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury, Irish)
Veronica Sullivan is Deputy Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings. She writes and tweets.
I think there’s only one element missing from this piece. The history of the award, its perceived balances and biases, and the recent changes to its selection criteria are all covered, but the form in which the judges are given the works is missing. Many competitions give the submitted works to their judges in blind packaging, that is, no names, only a title. Obviously once the longlist is released, this anonymity is no longer possible, but what about prior to that?
Veronica Sullivan writes, “… according to chair of the judges AC Grayling, ‘our guiding principal [in selecting the longlist] was merit. We didn’t ask about the nationality or gender, there was no question of tokenism.’ But it is not tokenism to require that unconscious biases be addressed, nor to demand that a prize which claims to reward ‘the best original novel’ truly offers all eligible books equal ground on which to stake their claim for recognition.”
I’d like to see that idea of “unconscious bias” addressed in the context of how the manuscripts were presented to the judges. If, as Grayling seems to be implying, the judges had no knowledge of each manuscript’s origins, that is, its author’s gender or nationality, and perhaps even name (because if someone gave you a manuscript that said, “by David Mitchell”, you might JUST recognise it from somewhere, not to mention infer that he was a man) — if the judges really were reading blind, how unconscious is that bias? Is there such a thing as an embedded gendered voice? And if so, how on earth do you classify it and protect against its being ostracised? Such a process might actually end up being more rather than less sexist, like in the episode of Community where the Dean tries to design a mascot that isn’t racist.
To accuse the Man Booker Prize (with which I have my own issues — fuck off, Peter Carey) of unconscious bias at that level requires a closer examination of how the longlist is chosen, rather than assuming bias based solely on the process’s results.