Calling all fellow bookworms: The Man Booker Prize longlist for 2014 is out! And given that—in its own words—the prize goes to the “very best book of the year,” we were pretty stoked to further investigate what gems we had overlooked this year. (An excitement that quickly evaporated upon realizing Fifty Shades of Grey was sadly not considered literature.)
But seriously folks. Up for the “world’s most important literary award,” there were only three women—compared with 10 men. Gentle face palm.
As you may guess, this isn’t exactly an unusual ratio. Despite 28 year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s epic win last year for The Luminaries—with which she may have taken the phrase "you go girl" to atmospheric levels—the stats remain sobering. Of the 44 total winners, 30 have been men (though it's worth noting that a few greedy star authors have nabbed the prize more than once).
What might surprise (read: depress) you, however, is that women seem to be faring worse in recent decades. More of us XX-chromosome types won the award between 1969 and 1991 than ever since. We’d like to be more eloquent given the subject matter but . . . ack!
Oh, and the Booker Prize isn’t an anomaly in this land of elite prizes for prose: For the past 20 years, 80% of Pulitzer finalists for General Nonfiction have wielded penises alongside their pens.
So What Gives?
Let's head back to the land of Booker, because we’re not going to just get all mopey and call it a day. Nay. We press on to get to the bottom of this gender-imbalanced phenomenon. Even suspending the long-discussed issue of sexism in the publishing industry, what’s up with the rather pitiful lack of estrogen-infused prose in this year’s selections?
An easy out is, of course, to blame the judges (and yes, of the six, only two are women). But while bitter scapegoating can be fun, the issue is much larger than the judging panel. The very book-submission process plays a key role in all of this. Turns out, publishers are limited to the number of books they are able to submit in a given year by the number of their own books that have been longlisted in the previous five years.
Publishers who’ve never scored a longlisting may only submit a single book. Those who’ve had one or two books are free to submit two books. Those with three or four, earn three slots. Finally, a publisher who’s had five or more longlistings may submit four books. And then each publisher may submit five other titles they believe merit consideration. A confusing process, to be sure, but what isn't confusing is how all this longlisting of male-centric literature gets perpetuated.
So if we’re going to scapegoat, maybe the publishers are the ones worthy of our scorn? One of the judges, Sarah Churchwell, essentially—and sassily/kinda awesomely—hinted at just that in some of her recent tweets:
As inevitable debate & criticism develop, do bear in mind that what we longlist is defined by what publishers submit to us. #ManBooker2014.
She also suggested that she had her own little way of rectifying any injustices:
But it may be when prize is done I'll casually start dropping recommendations of some books I just happened to read this year. #payattention
We can only hope Churchwell intends to address the other egregious issue with this year’s longlist—and it’s even more galling than the gender imbalance: race.
Of those longlisted there is but one book written by a person of color. Count ‘em, because it literally couldn’t be easier to do: one. (The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee). And this in the landmark year where the Booker Prize has been internationalized:
For the first time in its 46 year history, the £50,000 prize has, in 2014, been opened up to writers of any nationality, writing originally in English and published in the UK. Previously, the prize was open to authors from the UK & Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe.
Off to quite the start, Man Booker, with this whole “historic” opening up of the award thing. Quite the white, dudely start.