So the longlist for the lucrative Man Booker Prize arrived with a thud this morning: On it are 10 men and three women. Ten men, three women. At surface level, it seems inconceivable, not to mention dispiriting, that in this day and age that there’s still so much sexism in the literary prize world—although there clearly is, and it’s by no means limited to the Man Booker. A fascinating recent article which looked at nonfiction prizes over the last 20 years found that 80 percent of the Pulitzer finalists were male, and 95 percent were white.
Once I began looking into it, I realized that it’s possible that this male-centered longlist isn’t entirely the judges’ fault. The Man Booker, it turns out, has an unusually complex submission process: Publishers are limited to the number of books they may submit by the number of their books that have been longlisted in the previous five years. A publisher who hasn’t had a longlisting at all may submit one book, a publisher who’s had one or two longlistings may submit two books, a publisher with three or four longlistings may submit three books, and publishers with five or more longlistings may submit four books. Each publisher also gets to submit a list of five other titles they believe merit consideration.
The judges can call in some of these books—but they’re limited to just 12 per year. In addition, the rules on books’ British publication dates may have excluded some of last year’s most important novels by women, such as The Goldfinch.
In a way, the submission system makes some sense, since it limits the number of books placed before the judges. (In comparison, the National Book Foundation doesn’t limit the number of novels a publisher may submit, and members of its fiction prize panels are famous for practically drowning in books.)
Given all that, it’s possible that publishers are to blame for the longlist if they submitted books mostly by men. One of the Man Booker judges, Sarah Churchwell, basically tweeted as much:
She also tweeted that she had “many many thoughts on this subject but can’t comment now” and hinted that she had her own issues with the list:
Still, says Laurie Muchnick, fiction editor at Kirkus and president of the National Book Critics Circle, “I find it hard to believe they couldn’t find more women no matter what the pool was like.” And I have to agree with her. Really, Man Booker Prize? Ten men and three women—that’s the best you could do?