A brighter future for the Booker Prize?

By Hannah Green

The Booker Prize is one of the biggest events on the literary calendar, but now the speculation, anticipation and hysteria have died down, it’s time to consider what the prize means not just for each year’s winner, but for the wider literary world.

Following 2019’s joint win by Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain was announced as the 2020 winner in November. Alongside literary prestige, the Booker Prize awards £50,000 to its winning author – this money has the potential to make a huge difference to the life of its winner, but its origins are marred by a history of colonialism and literary elitism. 

A bad beginning 

The Booker Prize was established by a group of publishers in 1968 and first awarded in 1969, with the explicit aim of encouraging greater engagement with and discussion of contemporary fiction. Its name came from Booker McConnell Ltd, the initial financial backers of the prize. They were brothers who were one of the first colonialist entrepreneurs in Guyana, then a British colony known as British Guiana. From 1834, the Booker brothers owned sugar plantations and established shipping links to transport their goods.

The firm was engaged in the sugar and rum trade right up until the early 20th century. Due to Guyanese political unrest and later independence from Britain in 1966, Booker McConnell was compelled to sell its land and business interests in Guyana to the newly-formed communist government in 1976. Although slavery was abolished in British Guyana before the Bookers began operations, the company had a history of exploiting its workers through indentured labour systems. 

By 1968, current literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation Gaby Wood described it as “an enlightened business run by Jock Campbell, a socialist peer with a strong desire to compensate for the history with which his sugar-trading ancestors had been associated.” Whether Campbell was guided by his moral compass or a desire for some positive PR, the fact remains that the wealth of the company, and subsequently that of the prize, was founded on colonial exploitation. Although Booker McConnell stopped providing funding in 2002, its legacy remains: the very fact that the prize was initially conceived to be awarded to writers from Britain and the Commonwealth serves as a stark reminder of this country’s brutal colonial past. From its very inception, the relationship between money, literature and the history of the prize has been a complex one.   

Successes and controversies 

The Booker Prize has a long string of controversies, from accusations of unfair literary elitism and divided judging panels to last-minute decisions and bitter rivalries. 

One of the more dramatic moments was John Berger’s decision to donate half of his 1972 prize money to the British Black Panther Party. In his acceptance speech, he drew an explicit link between Booker McConnell’s activities in the Caribbean and the present social and economic conditions there, stating that “one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the £5,000 of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation.”

In 1994, James Kelman’s win with How Late It Was, How Late, a stream-of-consciousness novel written in Glaswegian dialect, caused a stir among the public and a divide on the judging panel.

One judge, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, allegedly threatened to resign if the book won, and the victory created a storm of media coverage both celebrating the fresh new voice and decrying its vulgarity and apparent lack of literary merit. Kelman however, spoke up for his choice of language and described the importance of his work, which he saw as working within “a tradition premised on a rejection of the cultural values of imperial or colonial authority, offering a defence against cultural assimilation, in particular imposed assimilation.” His win had a profound impact on this year’s winner Douglas Stuart. 

The Booker judging panel changes yearly, but it’s important to consider just who is making the decisions that will change not only the fortunes of one writer but the shape of our literary landscape. Panels are usually made up of a range of industry professionals, such as writers, editors and literary agents, as well as historians, academics and religious leaders. As we can see with Rabbi Julia Neuberger, each brings their own values and judgements about what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ literature. 

Money matters  

But where is the money coming from now? After sponsoring the prize from 2002 to 2019, the Man Group, an active management business, took a step back. In a statement, the Booker Prize was at pains to stress that the termination of funding was not a direct result of author Sebastian Faulks’ comment that the Man Group was “the enemy.” Whilst that may be the case, this sentiment is indicative of a wider mistrust of hedge funds in particular and the financial sector in general after the havoc wreaked in 2008, which may have led to the Booker Prize considering other sources of income. 

The Man Group has been replaced by the Crankstart Foundation, a charity run by Silicon Valley billionaire Sir Michael Moritz and his author wife Harriet Heyman. In response to questions about whether their money was ‘clean’, in a press release the Booker Prize Foundation insisted that “before coming to any agreement with Crankstart, BPF carried out appropriate due diligence reporting on Crankstart and its two founders.” Whilst vague, this is still a sign that the foundation is considering (at least from a public image perspective) the origins of their prize money. 

Michael Moritz made his fortune investing in internet success stories such as Google and YouTube, and whilst his money may not have proliferated in colonial exploitation or hedge funds, big tech companies present their own set of ethical dilemmas. The funding model of literary awards like the Booker leave them dependent on their donors, prone to turning a blind eye to unsavoury financial practices, and vulnerable should the donor choose to terminate the funding. 

A new literary landscape? 

The positive impact of the prize is two-fold: besides prestige, the money (wherever it comes from) provides authors with the means to write more, and the chosen book can shine a light on previously ignored narratives. In fact, this year’s winner Douglas Stuart directly credits Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late with changing his life, adding that it was “one of the first times I saw my people, my dialect, on the page.” He also said that he hopes that his win inspires other working-class stories. 

As well as its potential to highlight underrepresented voices, the Booker Foundation works to increase access to literature. The Booker Foundation has previously worked with the National Literacy Trust to improve literacy in Middlesbrough, and the Trust’s Chief Executive Jonathan Douglas recently unveiled plans to replicate the scheme in Birmingham and Bradford. He stated that “we want to give young people from the most diverse areas of those cities, from wards where over 85, 90% of the population are from BAME communities (…) the opportunity to read some really extraordinary fiction.” With involvement from previous Booker winners and help from local young people, this scheme seems to be the closest the Booker Prize has come to its original purpose: to encourage reading in Britain. 

However, representation and charity work have their limitations. Despite the Booker’s relatively good record of celebrating the work of Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, a 2017 survey revealed that when respondents were asked to name a writer of literature, only 7% of authors named were of Black, Asian or Mixed Race ethnicity. Clare Hynes reflects on what we can learn from the disparity between this report and the Booker’s diversity, asking “if more people read a broad range of literature – if more people were able to cross boundaries of race, class, gender and sexuality and get a sense of how others lived their lives, how different would Britain be?

It’s clear that institutions like the Booker can only go so far. Issues of race and class run far too deep – from the source of institutions’ wealth to public perceptions of what an author ‘looks like’ – to be solved by awards and big cash prizes. If we can learn anything from the Booker Prize, then it’s that colonialism and racism are not only deeply embedded in our foreign policy and public institutions: they also pervade our cultural framework and reveal the amount of work we still have left to do. Examining the Booker’s history is an example of an important step towards growing a greater understanding of the deeply rooted issues that exist in our system which will help direct us on how we can build a better, more inclusive literary world.

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage.