Colonial roots of Booker prize are problematic, say organisers as shortlist revealed

A report by David Sanderson for The Times of London.

The roots of the Booker prize are problematic because of their links to colonialism and the British empire, its organisers said today as they revealed this year’s shortlist.

Gaby Wood, its literary director, said there were “political as well as literary problems” with returning to the “colonial framework” of the rules that limited the prize to writers from Britain, the Commonwealth and Ireland. Maya Jasanoff, this year’s jury chairwoman, said she found it “pretty remarkable in the 21st century that people are talking about the former British empire as an appropriate container in which to think about literature”.

The rules changed in 2014 to allow for any book written in English to be in contention for the annual prize. Since then 18 of the 48 available shortlist places have been taken by Americans.

In this year’s shortlist announced today three American writers make the 6-strong shortlist — Patricia Lockwood, Richard Powers and Maggie Shipstead — along with the British Somalian-Nadifa Mohamed, the South African Damon Galgut and the Sri Lankan Anuk Arudpragasam.

Two hotly-tipped British authors who had been longlisted — the Nobel prize laureate Kazuo Ishiguro and Francis Spufford — were unexpectedly omitted.

Three years ago more than 20 publishers wrote to the Booker Prize Foundation complaining about the 2014 rule change that had made the prize “less global . . . by allowing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others”.

Wood said as the shortlist was revealed that if it was “strongly felt to be a problem then we will listen to the reasons why” adding however: “The idea of a reversion is a little bit problematic. There are political as well as literary problems in reverting to a Commonwealth framework. It is essentially a colonial framework. I don’t know if this is the right time to do that if there ever was a good time.”

The change split the literary world with Julian Barnes, the former winner, describing it as “straightforwardly daft” while Ishiguro was supportive and said “it no longer makes sense to split the writing world in this way”.

Despite the increasing American presence on the Booker shortlists, there have been more authors with at least part British nationality shortlisted since 2014. The past three years have seen British winners with Douglas Stuart, Bernardine Evaristo — who shared the award with Canadian Margaret Atwood — and Anna Burns.

This year’s sole British hope is Mohamed, who moved to Britain from Somalia aged four and whose novel The Fortune Men is set in the docklands of 1950s Cardiff. The other British authors on the longlist were Rachel Cusk, Sunjeev Sahota, Ishiguro and Spufford.

The jury — including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams of Oystermouth, the Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma, Horatia Harrod, an editor with the Financial Times, and the actress Natascha McElhone — read 158 submitted novels from January to June before selecting the 13-strong long list.

The winner of the prize, which is now sponsored by Crankstart charitable foundation, receives £50,000.

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