Three of the six nominees for this year’s Man Booker Prize are women of colour. Does this fact have significance? If so, what is it?
by Rudy Katoch
Within the infographic below, I’ve compiled the data of all nominations from Tuesday’s shortlist to 1969. I recognise each nomination as a unique case irrespective of the fact an author can be nominated more than once. Moreover, I have used 2011 Census classifications of ethnicity; although, like Adam Frost and Jim Kynvin’s representations of Man Booker Prize statistics for the Guardian, I acknowledge that ethnicity is customarily seen as self-defined.
NoViolet Bulawayo, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ruth Ozeki’s inclusion within this year’s shortlist contributes to only fourteen nominations of non-white female authors for the Prize since its inception. It’s the only year where three of the six nominees are non-white and female. (In 1991, three non-white male authors were nominated.) Moreover, with the inclusion of Eleanor Catton, the 2013 shortlist marks the eighth instance where female authors form a majority in the shortlist. Of the seven previous occurrences, four have led to a woman winning the Prize (in 2006, 1985, 1978, and 1970).
The purpose of this series of facts is to create a context for the original statement. I don’t intend this piece to be a polemic on political correctness. As John Dugdale writes for the Guardian when discussing the gender balance of UK literary journalism, for the Guardian:
If you’re looking for explanations, there are no reliable rules, only patterns.”
My first thought was to put it aside as a piece of trivia. But, I soon realised there is no precedent for this year’s announcement. This is why I believe it is important. You could say that this is rather obvious given that 5% of all nominations for the Man Booker Prize are for non-white female authors. Is it news that four out the six nominees are women? Evidently not. Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American literature at UAE, writes that these
“novels are more than a catalogue of places and ethnicities, of paint-by-numbers social and political categories. It takes a fairly impoverished view of literature to measure it by the ethnicity of its characters or its author, as if we judged the Mona Lisa on the basis that it’s Italian.”
Maybe it’s easier to comment, like Churchwell, that commenting on diversity is facile and instead discus the project’s common wealth of English literature as World literature? Or, to take a contrary position, like Prospect magazine, how this year’s choices make it ‘The Boring Booker’ because of the work, not the authors?
Yet, it is notable that Bulawayo is the first Zimbabwean author to be shortlisted for the Prize; that Lahiri is a member of US President Barack Obama’s committee on the arts and humanities; or, and Ozeki is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest based in Canada. This can be said without rigorous discussion of the aesthetic and ethical evaluation of their respective works. (I will be reviewing their work later this week for Writers of Colour).
“But for all this geographical diversity”, argues Luke Neima for Prospect, “the selection offers few surprises to its intended readership—“the intelligent general audience.” Isn’t the list itself surprising? Robert Macfarlane, the chair of judges, said he considered the list’s most striking feature its “global range” and Gaby Wood, books editor at the Telegraph, wrote that she felt “an actual tear of joy in my eye” when the names were read out. For me, it was the intersection of race and gender which was strikingly omitted from media coverage and discussion.
But, the Daily Mail does not disappoint. Its lament—‘Only one British author on Booker shortlist’—did not articulate my thoughts, only the reverse of its tapestry with frayed threads and dull images. But, the tone which permeates the article (and the bookmaker’s favourites) fuels my suspicion that a shock win for Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being may not occur. Even if one’s chances of winning as a non-British author have almost tripled in the past twenty years, according to Frost and Kynvin, it’s necessary to contrast this with analysis of Prize recipients by gender. Observing winners in two periods 1969-1990 and 1991-2012, one discovers that within the first period, women just about hold their own, with nine winners from a possible twenty-one. In the second, there are only five female winners from twenty-one. This leads us back to the first two questions. Does this fact have significance? Yes. If so, what is it?
There has been a slowdown in female winners, but an increase of nominations. The aim of the prize is to attract the “intelligent general audience”. Greater representation of women is conducive to that goal. In addition to this and aside from the make-up of Booker prize judging panels from 1969—2013 as 99% white and 1% non-white (with the 2013 panel having no non-white judges), non-white authors have been recognised with greater frequency since 1991. This adumbration renders my understanding of this year’s nominations. I don’t feel I can qualify it with further interpretation, but do contribute your thoughts below.
If I am to predict a winner, it would be prudent to mention unquantifiable factors and motivations of the panel such as ‘the deserved win’ which seems to outweigh aesthetics and merit; the best example of this occurred in 2011 for A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Thus, irrespective of four women nominated this year, as well as Colm Tóibín’s wonderful work, I believe Jim Crace will win. A good analogue for this situation occurred in 1977. There were four women nominated for the Prize. But, it went Paul Scott’s Staying On. The foregrounding of “the most diverse longlist in Man Booker history” prefigured the organisation of the shortlist, but it does not necessarily suggest a clear winner. As a result, no one author will dominate sales or coverage from now until the 15th October when the winner will be announced.
Rudy Katoch is a twenty-four year old writer. He delivered talks from 2010-12 on style and cognition at the Sorbonne, Zurich, Rome, and UCD. The application of which can be seen on @KAT0CH. Essays and criticism can be found at RudyKatoch
· Booker Prize 2013 is a truly great shortlist (telegraph.co.uk)
· Heart of the story: mapping the Man Booker prize (theguardian.com)