Why aren’t there more women on the Man Booker Prize longlist?

The Man Booker Prize longlist has been unveiled and despite a change to the rules, it’s still very white and very male. Sarah Freeman reports.

Ali Smith one of three women nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize.
Ali Smith one of three women nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize.

In the end it wasn’t quite the American takeover many had predicted.

Traditionally only open to authors from the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland, the Man Booker Prize has long been the UK’s premier literary award. However, a relaxation of the rules, which saw authors of any nationality writing in English eligible for the award, had sent some British-based publishers into a spin.

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Effectively opening the door to the US, some feared that it would see British authors, who can’t currently enter America’s Pulitzer Prize, unfairly sidelined. The first longlist under the new rules was announced yesterday and featured four US authors among the 13 vying for the £50,0000 award.

Brits in contention include Paul Kingsnorth, whose debut novel The Wake, written in his own made-up language based on Old English and financed through online crowdfunding and Calcutta-born Neel Mukherjee for The Lives Of Others. However, the rest of the shortlist is made up of more familiar faces.

David Nicholls, whose novels One Day and Starter For 10 were adapted into hit films, is there with his latest work Us, as is David Mitchell - in the running for his book The Bone Clocks - and Howard Jacobson, who won the Booker in 2010 for The Finkler Question, is also back. Australian Richard Flanagan and two Irish writers Joseph O’Neill - who lives in New York - and Niall Williams are also in the running.

“Opinion is divided as to whether it’s right or wrong to allow American authors into the Booker, but one thing you can say is that opening up the award hasn’t made it any less white or any less male,” says Kevin Duffy, founder of independent publishing house Bluemoose Books based in Hebden Bridge.

Of the 13 books, just three have been written by women - How to Be Both by Britain’s Ali Smith, We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by American Karen Joy Fowler and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, widely tipped as favourite, failed to make the cut.

“It is quite a conservative longlist,” says Kevin. “The mainstream publishing world as a whole tends to be risk averse, but it’s a shame there are not more young, exciting writers in the mix. In the past independent publishers who had not previously had their work longlisted were able to send in two books. Now we can only send one. I’ve always been a great believer that publishers should fall in love with a writer’s words and prizes shouldn’t be seen as a validation of your work. It’s an incredibly subjective business, but the reality is awards do open doors for new authors and it gives them a platform on the high street.

“One of our authors is Benjamin Myers. We’ve just published his novel Beastings which won the Northern Writers Award based on the first three chapters. The Man Booker might be the jewel in the crown, but all awards are about raising profiles.”

Bookmaker William Hill makes O’Neill the favourite to take the prize at 4/1, while Mitchell is the top British hope at 5/1 second favourite. It puts Flanagan at 6/1, Smith 7/1, Jacobson and Powers at 8/1, Fowler and Williams on 9/1, while Mukherjee and Nicholls are 10/1 .

“After all the fears about a US-dominated list, the number of British writers comes as a surprise,” said Jonathan Ruppin, of Foyles bookshops. “Although the absence of any authors from Africa or Asia is perhaps the more striking aspect of the spread of nationalities. I doubt anyone would have predicted the appearance of Karen Joy Fowler or David Nicholls, but their books are by no means the only longlisted ones with the potential to appeal to very broad readership.”

The winner will be announced on September 9.