With Paul Beatty’s The Sellout nabbing the “prestigious” Man Booker Prize for 2016 - the first American to do so - the opportunity presents itself to review the present state of affairs of the literary award, now in its 47th year. Despite whatever merits the aforementioned novel may possess, a cursory glance at the shortlist speaks of something suspicious in the selection, especially for a prize concerned with works published in the UK; though precisely what is wrong with it is more apparent when considering the award’s past iniquities.
Before diving headlong into the latest controversies of nationality concerning this particular prize, it is best to briefly outline the myriad past failures. Like any cultural institution, the Booker Prize has been prone to some laughable incompetence since its inception in 1969. There was 1970 where, due to a rule change, the committee forgot to award the prize to any novel (a mistake which was only rectified in 2010). There was 1980, when the prize was awarded to William Golding, principally because Anthony Burgess refused to attend unless it was confirmed that he had won. And then there was 1983, when a split amongst the judges was resolved only thirty minutes before the announcement, when Chair of the Judges Fay Weldon chose Salman Rushdie only to change her mind to J.M. Coetzee as the result was being phoned through. These are trifling affairs, however, when compared with a more troubling trend and bias inherent in the prize’s selections for the last 47 years.
Naturally, any institution whose intentions are, as the Booker Prize claims on their website, “to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom” is prone to pretension or criticisms of snobbery. It is easy to mock such things. In a world in which the Turner Prize may be won by a million-pound, semen-bestrewn, unmade bed, and when Leo can bag an Oscar for being violently molested by a CGI bear, that a literary award is bias is perfectly unsurprising nor does it seem that important. However, unlike those other awards, the stakes are real for the Booker Prize. The winner of the prize “receives £50,000 and, like all the shortlisted authors, a cheque for £2,500 and a designer bound copy of their book.” Apart from these more direct rewards, the prize also intends “to encourage the widest possible readership for the best in literary fiction - the winner and the shortlisted authors now enjoy a dramatic increase in book sales worldwide.” The effects of winning, or even just attaining the shortlist, are apparent and far-reaching. Evidently, with such real consequences, the Booker Prize represents more than just self-aggrandising, pretentious nothingness – more than a symbolic pat on the back; it is, essentially, a guarantee for success.
It is conspicuous then, that Paul Beatty is the first American to have won in such a long time. This is less surprising when you learn that his nationality has only been eligible since 2013. Before then, only authors from Commonwealth Nations, Ireland, Zimbabwe, or South Africa were able to enjoy the aforementioned benefits. Even with the exclusion of the North Americans and other English Language authors of non-Commonwealth nationalities, there was still great potential for diversity. Yet of all 50 winners (including two special prizes) 26 were English. And, in its entirety, only one Scottish author has ever won.
In 1994, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize. The occasion, at least for the literary community, was not a happy one. One of that year’s judges, Julia Neuberger, described the win as a “disgrace” while The Times Literary Critic Simon Jenkins concurred, calling the selection “literary vandalism.” There was a general consensus amongst literary critics that the book should have been disqualified, if not for its relentless use of Glaswegian language then for its committed obscenity. As denigrated as it was, at least Kelman won. The same could not be said for Irving Welsh. Though now Trainspotting is considered to be Welsh’s masterpiece, receiving commercial and critical acclaim (at least in certain circles), it was successfully removed by two judges from the longlist the year before Kelman’s win. Again, the issue was with Scottish language and, particularly, the apparent obscenity of the work.
You may expect that since the nineties, progress has been made. Examine the shortlist this year, however, and you’ll find only one Scots author, Graeme MacRae Burnet. Instead, this year’s list is awash with North American connections, from the US winner Paul Beatty to Canadian Madeleine Thien. Of the six shortlisted works, four are in some way related to North America, and two are also related to England (London more specifically). Burnet’s His Bloody Project is the anomaly. That many of these authors were ineligible before 2013 is in of itself a problem, though one the Prize may feel it has addressed. This year’s selection marks a clear effort to atone for slights against the Americans. Consequently, Scottish authors, who already struggle for the anglocentric prize, suffer. Apparent from the prize’s relationship with Scotland, however, this isn’t a new bias, nor one which is likely to be addressed anytime soon.
Whether the issue lies with the committee’s attempts to retrospectively correct past failures, such as the overzealous focus on the Americans, their anglocentric bias, their middle-class focus, or simply just their pettiness, it is clear that Scotland is unlikely to have a Man Booker Prize winner for a long, long time considering thus far we’ve won only once. And how late it was, how late.