Complaining about the Man Booker Prize is an important British tradition. Since its inception—as simply the Booker Prize, in 1969—it has been criticized for its imperialist overtones, its unwillingness to take risks, and, above all, its corrupt insularity. Though any writer from the Commonwealth was eligible, the winner was determined by a small and incestuous circle of London elites. In 2001, the comic novelist A.L. Kennedy described the Booker as being decided by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”
In recent years, however, the main complaint about the Booker is that it is not insular enough. In 2013, it was announced that, starting in 2014, Americans would be eligible for the prize. The uproar was immediate, lasting, and very British. Julian Barnes called it “daft.” A.S. Byatt worried that the identity of the prize had been diluted. Granta editor Anne Meadows wondered if it would come at the cost of lesser-known writers. “It means the prize will be dominated by big publishing houses who maybe aren’t taking as many risks,” she told the BBC. “It could make it incredibly elitist.”
On Wednesday, the Booker released its fourth shortlist since opening the field to Americans and its first since Paul Beatty became the first American to win the prize last year. It represents the worst fears of all those who bemoaned the decision to let the Yanks in. Three of the six books were written by Americans: George Saunders’s first novel Lincoln In the Bardo; Paul Auster’s 4321, which seems to have been selected because it is 1,000 pages long and because Auster is inexplicably popular abroad; and debut novelist Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. The list is rounded out by two books by British writers—perennial nominee Ali Smith’s Autumn and debut novelist Fiona Mozley’s Elmet—and the British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.
With two debut novelists on the short list, the Booker is clinging to its reputation for breaking out authors and for rewarding the not-yet-famous. But only barely. Four years after first announcing the decision to open the prize to Americans, the Booker is virtually indistinguishable from its competitors. It is exactly what many feared it would become: corporate and daft.
The decision to include Americans—to effectively turn the prize into an award for the best English language novel of the year—was almost certainly made for economic reasons. The prestige of literary prizes is largely dependent on sponsors. Those that come without a cash component, like the National Book Critics Circle awards, can’t compete with those that do, like the National Book Awards. Sponsors, in turn, want to ensure they’re supporting the biggest and best literary prize.
In 2013, the Booker was in a kind of arms race with the Folio Prize, which was first awarded that year to writers of any nationality working in English. This evidently spooked the organizers of the Booker, who then followed suit, while turning the Man Booker International Prize, a separate award, into a Nobel-lite lifetime achievement prize for non-English language writers. The move paid off: The Folio Prize went dormant in 2014, though it did return in 2017 as a shadow of its former self. (Now the Rathbones Folio Prize, it is open to fiction and nonfiction for some reason.)
Just as importantly, the changes to the Booker happened as the membrane separating American and British literature was becoming ever thinner. The United Kingdom, like the United States, is dominated by Penguin Random House. The other big British publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan) are nearly identical to the other big American publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster). When I was in the U.K. last month, I was shocked by the similarity of its book selection. It was basically the same, with the exception of books that delved into the weeds of British politics.
The new Booker, in other words, is really just a reflection of broader changes in the publishing world. Global publishing, like global literature, is increasingly homogenous. That’s not to say that a heterogeneous variety of books aren’t being published and recognized, just that our cultural pillars are increasingly shared across national lines. Writing in 2015, Stevie Marsden broke down how the Booker was stacked in favor of conglomerates even before Americans butted in:
Of the 75 books longlisted between 2010 and 2015, 23 came from imprints from Penguin and Random House (the two publishers merged in 2013 to become Penguin Random House). Penguin Random House’s fellow conglomerate publishers have also been extremely successful over this period. Hachette (Hodder & Stoughton, Sceptre, Virago and Headline Review) has received nine listings. Holtzbrinck, owner of Pan Macmillan, and News Corporation, owner of HarperCollins, have received seven and five respectively. That leaves 31 nominations spread among the independents.
One reason conglomerates fare so well is that they’re allowed to submit more titles for consideration. Big publishers have lots of imprints, which allows them to enter more books, which results in more nominations. Big publishing is dominated by Americans, so it’s no shocker that Americans have come to dominate the Man Booker Prize.
The first big casualty of this consolidation is the world of independent presses, which generally are more inclined to publish novels at the cutting edge of fiction. They are forced to compete with dozens of books backed by powerful conglomerates, books that, given their clout, swallow up shrinking critical coverage as well. The Booker has done an admirable job of continuing to nominate debut novelists, but midlist authors have been squeezed out. Meanwhile, corporate publishing is increasingly dependent on big names (see: George Saunders, Paul Auster) and bestsellers. Book awards—hoping to remain relevant in a culture awash in other entertainment options, and loath to waste their spotlight on an obscure author—have followed this trend.
The second casualty is authors who don’t hail from the United States or the United Kingdom. The Booker has a long tradition of being awarded to writers who come from outside the U.K. proper, including Arundhati Roy, Michael Ondaatje, John Banville, and Nadine Gordimer. With Americans gobbling up space on the long- and shortlists, there is less space for these writers, whose perspective is often sorely missing from corporate publishing. (That said, book prizes have nevertheless outpaced the publishing industry when it comes to diversity.)
By becoming an English language prize, the Man Booker has lost its identity as a British/Commonwealth prize. This is, ironically, a deep loss for Americans in particular. As Ron Charles wrote in The Washington Post, Americans have long depended on the Booker to get a sense of what was happening outside our shores.
But it’s a loss for everyone else as well: a British reading public that is already inundated with books by Paul Auster and George Saunders; a global community of writers who have lost an avenue to the all-important Anglo-American book audience; and a global community of readers who are increasingly reading the same 20 books every year.
This is the irony of the age in which we live. Technological change has made it possible for us to read anything we want, at any time. But it has coincided with an era of economic concentration not seen since the Gilded Age and a decline of media outlets devoted to art and culture. The Man Booker Prize is not as big as it once was, yes. But that’s because the literary world itself is shrinking.