Man Booker Prize 2017: A Disappointing Lack of Diversity

Last week, the Man Booker Prize was awarded to American author George Saunders for his debut novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’. Set in 1862, the novel is a compelling read that details Abraham Lincoln’s contemplation over the death of his son, Willie. It was praised by many critics on its release and has been regarded as a worthy winner. However, Saunders’ win is another on the long list of white, male winners of the award; it has done little in the way of helping much-needed diversification of the prize.

When the prize was first established, its intent was to award the ‘best’ novel written in the English language and published in the UK by an author of a Commonwealth country. Yet, despite this inclusion of many nationalities and ethnicities, twenty-eight of the previous winners have been British and only ten have been from a Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic background. Since the inclusion of all nationalities in 2014, two out of the past four winners have been American. This year’s shortlist consisted only of UK and US writers.

The prize has a responsibility to be representative; however, the lack of diversity of its winners is detrimental to everybody: the writers, the book industry, and the readers. The prize is overwhelmingly white and British, so many worthy writers of other nationalities and ethnic backgrounds are unrepresented, not receiving the recognition they deserve.

Readers are also suffering. As a reader myself, I find prizes like the Booker a great introduction to literary fiction and thus such prizes are great for commercialising literary fiction. I do not know where to get my recommendations, so the prize is a great way to introduce many people to the genre. In limiting the range of authors nominated, the content is also limited. Readers are not as easily exposed to what great literary fiction is available from writers of other nationalities.

The prize is also not what it used to be, a fantastic way of exposing less-established writers to international fame, giving them well-deserved recognition in the extremely competitive world of books. This year’s shortlist featured three established authors alongside three debut-novelists. Although Saunders’ novel was his debut, he was already an established short-story writer. For an idea of the power of the award for an author, Arundhati Roy stands as a perfect example. In 1997, she won for her debut novel ‘The God of Small Things’. This propelled a relatively unknown Indian author into international acclaim. Today her novel serves as the highest-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. In awarding the prize to established writers, writers who would benefit more from the award are being deprived.

The prize has begun to see a rejection by mainstream media critics. The Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker’ was introduced in 2009, allowing the readers to nominate and choose their own winners. It was won this year by Winnie M Li for ‘Dark Chapter’. The prize is a reaction to the lack of representation provided by the Booker prize, as well as the claim that the judges ‘pick the wrong winner far too often’. The introduction of this prize demonstrates the shunning of the narrow nature of the prize by the mainstream media.

Saunders’ win does prove that the Man Booker Prize is good at what it always intended to do: recognise some of the ‘best’ English language literary fiction out there today. However, when it comes to the range of books and authors from which it chooses, it could do a whole lot better.


Eleanor Smith

Image credit: Waterstones