Just like anything on this earth and any person on this planet, Booker Prize for literature is not beyond criticism. Moreover, these instances of criticism and contemptuous opinions on the prize and the process are not baseless. There are many examples when critics and reputed authors have alleged wrongdoings on the part of the Booker Prize Foundation, the jury and the very process of this award. In this article, I will explore why, when and of what magnitude the allegations are against the Booker Prize. I will try to make this article a one-stop break for anyone who wants to understand the controversies around the Booker Prize and the problems associated with it. So, without wasting any more moments, let’s get straight into the problems with the Booker Prize (and also the Books that got it). Are you ready?
What are the points on which the Booker Prize has faced criticism on various occasions? Though you can find lengthy articles and reports, here are the main reasons or the problems outlined:
1. Subjectivity in Judging: Literary awards, including the Booker Prize, are often criticised for their subjective nature. On many occasions, it has come out that the selection process that relies on the judgment of a panel of judges may be influenced by the preferences or biases of the individuals in the panel. This subjectivity can lead to disagreements and perceptions of unfairness in the selection of the winners. Those who follow literary awards ardently should remember the 2011 controversy surrounding the Booker Prize. In 2011, the chairman of the Booker Prize judges, Dame Stella Rimington, was criticised for advocating “readability” over literary merit, leading to concerns about the focus on more commercially appealing works.
2. Commercial Influence: From time to time, leading literary critics have argued that the Booker Prize’s increasing commercialisation has affected its credibility. It is no surprise that publishers indulge in heavily promoting certain titles they believe have a higher chance of winning, potentially overshadowing other deserving works. This commercial influence can raise questions about whether the winning book is chosen based on literary merit or marketing strategies. For instance, in 2018, after Anna Burns won the Booker Prize for her novel “Milkman,” there were debates about the role of publishers in promoting and influencing the selection process, potentially overshadowing other deserving works.
3. Lack of Diversity: At times, the Booker Prize has been criticised for not adequately representing diverse voices and perspectives. Though there can be prolonged and caffeinated sessions in JLF kind of politically motivated literary festivals what actually this diversity is, it is a point worth noting! Critics argue that the shortlist and winner often favour established authors or a particular style of writing, neglecting works from underrepresented regions or ‘marginalised’ communities. In short, we can smell the fresh carcasses of subjectivity, ideology and motivation here. In 2017, the lack of female authors on the Booker Prize shortlist drew criticism and sparked discussions about the need for greater representation of women’s voices in literary awards.
4. Exclusion of Non-English Works: While the Booker Prize has evolved to include authors writing in English from any nationality, some have criticised its historical exclusion of non-English works. Before the rule change in 2013, the prize was limited to authors from the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth, which excluded many significant literary voices from around the world. Before the rule change in 2013, there were ongoing discussions and criticisms about the Booker Prize’s restriction to authors from the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth, which excluded notable non-English works and authors from other parts of the world. In doing so, the Booker Prize committee, in a way, tried to impose English while historically and cynically ignoring works in other languages around the world. And so, it did not sound more like celebrating literature. It sounded merely like celebrating a language that was imposed on the world in a strategic manner. What do you think?
5. Controversial Snubs: The omission of highly acclaimed or popular works from the longlist or shortlist has sparked controversy on several occasions. Readers and critics have expressed frustration when well-regarded books are overlooked, leading to debates about the award’s selection process. I still remember Sea of Puppies falling down against a rather less literary work by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger, in 2008.
6. Literary Politics: Literary awards, including the Booker Prize, can sometimes be influenced by literary politics or favouritism. Critics argue that personal relationships or affiliations may affect decision-making, potentially undermining the impartiality of the award. The involvement of publishers, agents, or authors with personal relationships with the judging panel has led to occasional accusations of favouritism or biased decisions, although concrete examples are limited due to the confidentiality of the judging process. Going beyond the conventional allegations, let us think for a while about the prejudice and preference quotient. What if the panel of judges doesn’t like a particular idea? What if the panel doesn’t subscribe to a view? What if one or more judges tend to like some particular thing in one book (at the cost of everything else on other books in consideration)? I will again highlight that Sea of Puppies by popular and respected novelist Amitav Ghosh, seasoned at that time, was sidelined and Adiga’s The White Tiger was picked because it underlined the ‘dark side of India’ and judges liked it. Now, you decide!
8. Overemphasis on Prize-Winning Books: Critics have also pointed out the danger of an excessive focus on prize-winning books, suggesting that readers may miss out on equally deserving works that have not received such accolades. As a consequence, it might lead to a narrow lane of choice for readers who heavily rely on these awards every year to bucket books for their reading sessions. It is good to read books that win awards. However, there are many books which may not win awards and yet have far more literary merit in them! For example, Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh did not win the Booker Prize. And yet, the book has too much to offer.
Now, let’s focus on what authors, book critics, and public figures have to say about the problems with the Booker Prize in English Literature. Here are some important critical opinions on the Booker Prize by authors and influential literary critics, including public figures:
1. A.S. Byatt: The renowned British author A.S. Byatt criticised the Booker Prize for its supposed preference for “readable” and “hummable” novels over works of real literary merit. In an interview with The Guardian in 2001, she claimed that the prize risked diluting the quality of literature by promoting books that are more commercially appealing rather than challenging readers with more complex narratives. Just imagine that it was way back in 2001… and today, we are in 2023. How far have we come?
2. John Banville: Though an awardee of the prize-in-concern himself, Banville has some interesting opinions about the award. John Banville (who writes under the pen name Benjamin Black) expressed scepticism about literary prizes, including the Booker, in an interview with The Guardian in 2011. He questioned the subjective nature of judging books and suggested that the process might not always be fair or accurately reflect the best works of literature. And I share the concern as well. When the committee picks the jury members, there is no transparent rule about what they do, how they read, or how they finalise the entries for the award and short or long lists! The winner? We don’t know!
3. Julian Barnes: Although Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending in 2011, he had previously been critical of the prize. In his 1985 essay “Literary Executions,” he discussed the negative impact of the Booker Prize on authors and the literary world, stating that the focus on a single annual prize can lead to a “false set of values.” Extending the argument made by Barnes, the author tried to highlight that emerging authors may focus more on award-winning writing rather than writing itself.
4. Peter Stothard: Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, offered critical remarks about the Booker Prize’s longlist in 2011. He argued that including popular or bestselling books on the longlist diluted the award’s reputation and detracted from its recognition of truly groundbreaking literary works. His comments were reported in The Telegraph. However, there should be an open-minded debate about this whole conundrum of popular fiction vs literary fiction.
5. Will Self: British author Will Self has been a vocal critic of the Booker Prize. In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in 2012, he referred to the prize as “posh bingo” and expressed his disapproval of the commercial aspects surrounding literary awards. He argued that they often focus on promoting marketable and accessible books rather than challenging and innovative works of literature. And it has been suggested in the points made above this section. In today’s world, nothing runs without an angle for ‘money’ and the Booker Prize is no exception! Publishers are leaving no stone unturned to get the Booker long list, short list or the Winner stamp to flash on the cover page of the novel… and then, just cash it on!
6. Irvine Welsh: The Scottish author Irvine Welsh, best known for his novel Trainspotting, criticised the Booker Prize for its perceived elitism. In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, he questioned the relevance of literary awards and suggested that they often promote a narrow range of literary voices, excluding many working-class writers and diverse perspectives. And this argument can combat the argument made by Peter Stothard (see above) about the ‘bestselling books’ on the long list of award. Yes, bestselling books do have some value and that is why millions of readers across the world read those works. Excluding them may only show the whims and elitist mindset of the jury members and the prize committee itself. Irvine Welsh’s concern has a substantial complaint!
7. Sebastian Faulks: Booker Prize-nominated author Sebastian Faulks expressed concerns about the award’s potential influence on writing styles. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2013, he stated that writers might be tempted to conform to a particular style or formula to increase their chances of winning, potentially stifling creativity and experimentation in literature. And the arguments are not out of a vacuum! Indian authors who have won the award or reached the narrowed short-list stages of this award, often conform to the idea of bashing India and Indians… and that secures them the award and recognition, often! The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or The White Tiger by Adiga are the best examples. 1/10th literary merit (some might find the value exaggerated) and 9/10th bash-India propaganda from a very subjective and unauthenticated point of view – here are the awards!
8. Amit Chaudhuri: Indian author Amit Chaudhuri criticised the Booker Prize for its treatment of international writers in comparison to British authors. In a 2011 article for The Guardian, he argued that the prize tends to favour British writers over international ones, and the inclusion of foreign authors might be more of a token gesture rather than a genuine appreciation of their work. And the arguments made in that article might well resonate very resoundingly with many writers who may have felt sidelined or, at least, humiliated seeing the award being given out to authors who may have lesser literary merits but a preferred passport!
9. Julian Gough: Irish author Julian Gough shared his critical views on the Booker Prize and literary awards in general in a 2013 interview with The Irish Times. He expressed concerns that awards can be influenced by politics, marketing, and favouritism rather than focusing solely on the merit of the books. I guess we have had enough arguments made already in this long article that puts everything in perspective.
These are the major concerns that cloud the entire exercise of handing out literary awards every year. While many may rejoice in these awards and celebrations of literature, there are many, at the same time, who are worried about these things. Now, as a reader and an admirer of literature, a person needs to decide for himself how far can one rely on these awards while making choices for summer readings or the best novels to read or something like that. Nevertheless, we also need to acknowledge that every coin has two sides unless it is specially made! 🙂
Previous article in this series: Book Prize in Literature: everything you need to know
AM for Literature News