September 21, 2018

The Man Booker Shortlist is announced – what can it tell us this time about the state of British publishing?


The Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced on 20th September.

So let’s take a moment to look at the stats of this year’s chosen few, for lo and behold, they can usually tell us something interesting about wider trends within the British literary world.

The 2018 shortlist of six novels

Author (country/territory)              Title (imprint)

Anna Burns (UK)                                       Milkman (Faber & Faber)

Esi Edugyan (Canada)                              Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)

Daisy Johnson (UK)                                  Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)

Rachel Kushner (USA)                             The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)

Richard Powers (USA)                             The Overstory (William Heinemann)

Robin Robertson (UK)                             The Long Take (Picador)

It is interesting to see some favourites not making the shortlist. The biggest hitter in terms of being a household name, Michael Ondaatje, was culled. And neither Sally Rooney nor Donal Ryan made it, despite their respective books, Normal People and From a Low and Quiet Sea being huge sellers.

The judges this year were led by chair Kwame Anthony Appiah and the panel was made up of Val McDermidLeo RobsonJacqueline Rose and Leanne Shapton. In an official Man Booker statement, Appiah announced:

“All of our six finalists are miracles of stylistic invention. In each of them the language takes centre stage. And yet in every other respect they are remarkably diverse, exploring a multitude of subjects ranging across space and time. From Ireland to California, in Barbados and the Arctic, they inhabit worlds that not everyone will have been to, but which we can all be enriched by getting to know. Each one explores the anatomy of pain — among the incarcerated and on a slave plantation, in a society fractured by sectarian violence, and even in the natural world. But there are also in each of them moments of hope.

These books speak very much to our moment, but we believe that they will endure. And we look forward to re-reading all of them as we make our way towards what will inevitably be the very difficult choice of only one of these brilliantly imaginative works as this year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize.”

Daisy Johnson is the youngest author, at twenty-seven, to make the shortlist. The youngest author ever in the history of the Booker, which has been going since 1969. Which seems rather incredible. Twenty-seven really isn’t that young. Why aren’t more authors in their twenties being considered for this, the biggest of all UK literary prizes?

For an answer we could look to the judges. Over the past five years, only 6% of judges have been under thirty. 33% fall into the thirty to forty year-old bracket, with 20% being forty to fifty years-old. And the biggest chunk: 40% are over sixty. Is it therefore really a surprise that Johnson, at twenty-seven, is the youngest to be shortlisted? While we absolutely should respect the careers and experience of older writers, we also need to admit to ourselves the possibility that age and life experience impacts our reading tastes, and sixty-somethings may not be as drawn to literature written by twenty-somethings, dealing with issues relevant to twenty-somethings. There are so many young, talented writers out there right now who deserve recognition so it would be great to think a shift is happening to address this.

Then of course the Booker has, over recent years, found itself attacked over diversity and Americanization, as we have written about before. This time, proportionally we have more women than men shortlisted. But if we’re looking for black, Asian and minority ethnic authors, we’re rather lacking. There is still, unfortunately, a long way to go to address diversity within the publishing industry – let’s remind ourselves of last year’s Guardian headline stating that more than 90% of those currently working in the UK publishing industry classify themselves as white British.

Shortlisted author author Anna Burns told Martin Doyle of the Irish Times on being longlisted:

“Speaking short-term, I heard that within a day sales of Milkman went up. In monetary terms that’s an impact. Publishers will definitely like that sort of thing and might then be accommodating if I should go to them a wee bit later with some sketchy, hare-brained plan of possible further work and say, ‘How about you give me money to write this?’

So starts the impact of the Booker halo – the magical effect a longlisting or shortlisting has on book sales. Except no magic is involved, it just highlights the reality of how skewed the British publishing industry is and how to ‘make’ a bestseller there are very few avenues open to publishers. Especially if you’re small. The only real indie on the shortlist is Profile (yes, Faber is technically independent but they must have 100+ employees so let’s not kid ourselves here). It is always nice to see Profile doing well, but it would be even nicer to see another, smaller publisher managing to poke their head above the parapet. Perhaps with a young writer. Who isn’t white. Oh, what dreams!

The winner will be announced on Tuesday 16 October in London’s Guildhall.




Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.