Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Man Booker Prize: Crunching the Numbers

The Man Booker was first awarded in 1969. It has subsequently been awarded annually, except for 1970 (until 1970 the prize was awarded to books published in the previous year, while from 1971 onwards it was awarded to books published the same year as the award, which had the effect of passing over 1970). Last year a special 'Lost Booker Prize' was convened, and Farrell's Troubles was retrospectively given the 1970 prize.

I teach a course on the Booker prize at Royal Holloway University of London, and decided to crunch the numbers on winners and shortlisted titles, parsing them via nationality, gender, genre and other things, to see if any interesting conclusions emerged. For completeness sake I included the 'lost booker' shortlist and winner.

The data fields I used are: this list of Booker winners, and this list of all the shortlisted titles. You can check my stats against them if you like.

There have been 44 winners overall; 45 including 1970’s ‘Lost Booker’.

—There are more winners than years the prize has run, because in 1974 and 1992 two titles won (the prize was tied between Nadine Gordimer’s Conservationist and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday in 74, and between Ondaatje’s English Patient and Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger in 92.)

Winners by nationality

  • UK writers have won 27 of those 45 prizes (counting Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch, VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie as UK)—which is 60% of the total.
  • 4 Australian books have won: counting D B C Pierre as Australian (the grounds of his eligibility; he considered himself Mexican at the time his novel won)—Keneally, Schindler’s Ark 1982, Carey, Oscar and Lucinda, 1988, Carey again for True History of Kelly Gang 2001 and Vernon God Little 2003
  • 3 Indian novels have won the prize: God of Small Things 1997; Inheritance of Loss 2006; White Tiger 2008. All of these are from the second two decades of the prize. If we count Rushdie as Indian, then 4 Indian novels have won the prize (of course, Midnight’s Children won in 1981).
  • 3 South African novels have won: Nadine Gordimer, Conservationist 1974; Coetzee Michael K 1983; Disgrace 1999
  • 3 Irish novels have won: Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha 1993, Banville’s The Sea 2005 and Enright’s Gathering, 2008. Including Farrell’s ‘lost Booker’ win for 1970 with Troubles, and counting the Anglo-Irish Farrell as Irish, this number goes up to 5, 11% of the whole. Iris Murdoch is sometimes considered Irish, but I am not doing so here.
  • 3 Canadian titles have won: Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient 1992, Atwood’s Blind Assassin 2000, Martel’s Life of Pi 2002,
  • 1 New Zealand title has won: Keri Hulme’s Bone People 1985
  • 1 Nigerian title: Ben Okri’s Famished Road, 1991
(If we want to call Naipaul West Indian, then In a Free State winning in 1971 counts for Trinidad and Tobago. Naipaul, however, is a British resident and citizen)

But here's what is interesting. Take that '27 of the 45 winners have been UK writers' statistic (60% of the total).

—IF we split the Booker period into early and late halves (the two decades 1969-1989, and the two decades 1990-2010):

  • from 1969-89 18 of 23 winners were UK (78%)
  • whereas from 1990-2010 only 9 out of 22 winners were UK (41%)

In other words, comparing the prize’s first two decades and its second two decades, the proportion of UK writers winning the prize has halved from c.80% to c.40%. I would argue that this is symptomatic of a more general ‘postcolonialization’ of the novel: that is to say, a shift in taste away from bourgeois, domestic, homegrown fiction towards more multicultural, globalized and historicized writing.

Here are the figures for all shortlisted titles, not just winners: from 1969-2010, and including the 1970 ‘lost Booker’ shortlist, 250 novels have been nominated for the Booker. You can see the shift from domestic to global fiction in the second two decades of the prize:

Booker shortlisted novels by nationality 1969-2010

1969-1989 (and as %)

1990-2010 (and as %)

Total (and as %)


91 (76%)

64 (48%)

155 (62%)


10 (9%)

19 (15%)

29 (12 %)


9 (7.5%)

9 (6.8 %)

18 (7%)


5 (4%)

9 (6.8%)

14 (5.6%)


3 (2.6%)

9 (6.8%)

12 (5%)

South Africa

4 (3%)

7 (5.3%)

11 (4.5%)

New Zealand

1 (under 1%)

1 (under 1%)

2 (under 1%)





St Kitts (WI)



Sri Lanka















[Notes: I can't explain the following anomalies: the prize rules say that novels by writers from the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth are eligible. But South Africa was not a Commonwealth country in 1986 when Coetzee won for Michael K. (SA rejoined Commonwealth in 1994) Also Ahdaf Soueif (Egyptian) and Hisham Matar (Libyan) were nominated in 1999 and 2006 respectively. Odd.

Plus Sybille Bedford was nominated in 1989, despite the fact that she was German. Her actual name was Frejin [ie Baroness] Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck, and she lived most of her life in Continental Europe and the USA—though she was resident in the UK from 1979 til her death in 2006]

Winners by gender

Winners by gender: 15 women and 30 men. That’s to say, one third of the winners have been women and two thirds men.

Compare this with the figures for all shortlisted authors: 94 have been women, and 156 men—which is to say 62% of shortlisted titles are by men, 38% by women. So, by the numbers, women very slightly underperformed when it comes to winning -- although not by much, and the one third/two third split is broadly true of shortlisted titles as well as winners.

How does that compare with publishing as a whole?

Figures are hard to come by, and I'd assume that some genres (Romance and chicklit say) are disproportionately represented by female authors. But if we take ‘fiction’ as a whole, a survey by the Complete Review suggests that only between 15 and 24% of all titles written that get reviewed are by women.

This says nothing about overall numbers of books published, since only a small number of published titled get reviewed. But there’s no reason to think that the gender proportions are particularly different in the larger world of publishing.

Overall, female representation in the Booker shortlists has got marginally worse over the whole life of the prize: nominations for the first two decades = 54 women, 77 men (41%, 59%). 1990-2010 = 40 women, 79 men (34%, 66%)

This is despite the fact that more women have been on judging panels. 1969-89 35 women judges were appointed as against 58 male (37%, 63%). From 1990-2010 the number of women went up to 49, men down to 56 (47%, 53%)

Now, you may feel that the Booker is to be commended for ensuring that more female writers are represented in its deliberations than is, proportionately, the case in publishing as a whole; or you may feel it is to be deplored, on the (reasonable, it seems to me) grounds that a 50:50 split between male and female authors ought to be the default, and the prize falls short of this ideal. I suppose that's debateable. There is evidence that more women than men read fiction, and it is certainly the case that more women than men study it at university.

Now we get into more contentious territory. This is how I'd break down the winners by genre/mode:
  • 23 have been Contemporary Fiction in a realist mode, broadly conceived.
  • 20 have been Historical Fiction (including Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and A S Byatt’s Possession, which are divided between the past and the present)
  • 2 have been Magical Realism (Ben Okri’s Famished Road, Martel’s Life of Pi). We might want to describe Midnight’s Children as magical realist of course: although personally I prefer to see it as a historical novel retelling the recent history of India.
  • 4 of the prize’s 45 winners have been debut titles (The Bone People 1985; God of Small Things 1997; Vernon God Little 2003; White Tiger 2008)
No science fiction or fantasy novel has ever won the Booker Prize. Atwood’s Blind Assassin (the novel is a family saga of 20th-century Canadian life, but contains, as one of its embedded narratives, a Pulp SF story) is the closest this genre has come. Only 4 SF novels have ever been shortlisted: Lessing’s Sirian Experiments (1980), Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Oryx and Crake (2003) and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). I don't think it would distort matters to call these (with the exception of Lessing, perhaps) 'non-genre SF titles'.

No crime novel has ever won.

No novel for children or YA fiction has ever won, or been shortlisted.

No graphic novel has ever won, or been shortlisted.

In 2009, Booker judge John Mullan got into hot water for suggesting that science fiction was, as a genre, unworthy of Booker notice (he characterised it as sold out of its own sections of bookshops that were patronised by peculiar people who kept themselves to themselves). At least Mullan's prejudices were open: in 2010 the Chair of Judges, Andrew Motion, said in interview that he and his fellow judges had decided not to shortlist, or indeed longlist, any science fiction or crime novels 'because these sorts of books have prizes of their own.' This strikes me as bordering on the disingenuous -- historical fiction, books by first-time authors and novels by women all have 'prizes of their own', but of course Motion and his judges would never exclude any of them from deliberation. I suspect Motion and his judges simply don't like science fiction, and consider crime fiction infra dig. That is (of course) their prerogative. But it does reinforce the idea, often argued, that the Booker is itself just as much a genre award as the CWA Golden Dagger or the Arthur C Clarke. The numbers suggest that the Booker almost always goes to a novel of contemporary life, or a historical novel. Indeed, we can take this one step further: most of the novels I count above as 'historical' fiction limit their historical engagement to the twentieth-century, often only a few decades before the novel itself is written, frequently linking that past directly to the present. By a more stringent definition, and if we choose to include all novels set in the twentieth-century under the rubric ‘contemporary’, then there have been—

3 5 winners we can call ‘historical fiction’: Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Golding’s Rights of Passage (1980), Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1992) and Carey's True History of the Kelly Kang (2001), Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).

Even if we add in Byatt's Possession, we're still talking about only 4 6 out of 45 winners being historical (13%). The Booker is predominantly a prize for contemporary-set or near-contemporary-set literary fiction.

Some conclusions:

1. The Booker has tracked a shift in taste away from domestic UK fiction and towards a more globalised, multicultural and postcolonial writing. (In the first two decades of the prize about 80% of winners were by UK writers; in the second two decades only 40%)

2. Women do slightly better in the Booker than in publishing as a whole.

3. The Booker is not hospitable to genre—or to put it another way: the Booker is a genre prize—the genre in question being ‘twentieth-century/contemporary literary fiction’.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

Top-notch stats geekery, sir.

An important point on the question of female representation is the fact that the Booker doesn't draw from all published books but only from those submitted by their publisher (who are each limited to a certain number of submissions per year). It would be interesting to see the list of books submitted for the Booker, and whether the percentage of women who are nominated and win the award is proportional to their representation within the submission list.

Adam Roberts said...

It would: but those data aren't public.

Bluejo said...

Surely The Bone People counts as magic realism, if not outright fantasy?

Martin said...

3 winners we can call ‘historical fiction’: Golding’s Rights of Passage (1980), Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1992) and Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).

Not Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) too?

Adam Roberts said...

Bluejo: you think? It's written in a distinctive, rather impressionistic prose, and part of its distinctiveness is the way it interweaves Maori legend and mythic significance with the actual narrative ... but that narrative is straightforwardly contemporary and mimetic, isn't it? Simon is mute, Keriwen is a hermit and so on: these aren't magical tropes as such.

Adam Roberts said...

Martin: oops, yes, you're quite right.

peake said...

On genre representation: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was shortlisted, as were Martin Amis's reverse-time novel Time's Arrow and Peter Carey's Illywhacker which edges distinctly into the same fantastic/magic realist territory that Ben Okri and Yann Martell occupy. It's not a great selection of genre representatives, but it is rather better than the woeful underrepresentation of crime fiction and other genres. (Why has John Le Carre never even been shortlisted?)

Oh, and we shouldn't forget that Brian Aldiss was once a judge (in a year that, I am sure by pure coincidence, saw Midnight's Children, The Sirian Experiments and D.M. Thomas's rather fantastical The White Hotel on the list. Maybe what we need is a better selection of genre-literate judges?

Adam Roberts said...

peake: good points. So we can count Cloud Atlas as (what?) one seventh SF, or whatever the proportion of the novel is. Time's Arrow too I suppose: although its reverse time trope is a narrative strategy, rather than (as in Counter-Clock World, the Phil Dick novel Amis ripped off) an actual novum in the world of the novel. But let's not quibble. And it's a long time since I read Illywacker; there's the improbably prolonged life of the protagonist; but are there other magical elements to the story?

I agree with you 100% about John Le Carré.

Bluejo said...

Kerewin magically cures herself of cancer, and has visions and hears voices of the old gods. Joe meets the last of the cannibals and is taken by him to see one of the old gods, he becomes the keeper of the god and brings it to the new maurai that Kerewin builds. The god speaks to him. It magically sinks into the ground. There's a prophecy that the digger and the child and the broken man will heal the land.

I never saw this as anything other than real, within the story. I suppose it might be possible for one of those people who want everything to be an analogy to squint at it that way, but the happy ending requires the fantastic.

peake said...

Adam, two of the seven stories within Cloud Atlas are indisputably sf, so at least two-sevenths sf? But since the whole novel does not work without these elements, I think it's rather more important than this rather simple quantification implies.

And since Amis's (really rather dreadful, and morally very dubious) novel does employ sf techniques we're stuck in a "where do you draw the line?' problem.

Martin said...

And since Amis's (really rather dreadful, and morally very dubious) novel does employ sf techniques

Does it though? As Adam suggestions, isn't this a narrative strategy of Amis's? That is to say, time doesn't actually go backwards in the story, rather story is told backwards.

Patrick Hudson said...

Time's Arrow has much more in common with that Alan Moore story ("The Reversible Man", where a guy dies and reviews his life in reverse than Counter Clock World, which has a forward moving plot in a world travelling backwards (it's one of Dick's more deliciously deranged novels, IMO). The Alan Moore connection was noted at the time, as I recall.

I would agree with other commenters that Cloud Atlas is very much a work of literary SF.

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chris said...

Susan Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel was long listed in 2005. Although exactly what that means I have no idea.

David Duffy said...

It doesn't add much to your conclusions, but the difference in proportions of the sexes in the short list and winner list is not statistically significant (P=0.63). The nationality shift with time is less likely to represent a chance finding (Fisher exact P=0.054). I can't work out if the absence of Scottish writers is suspicious ;).

Surely _Kelly Gang_ is historical too.

And I seem to recall various sarcastic remarks from the literati about the Le Carre prose style over the years esp The Naive and Sentimental Lover, his "non-genre" novel.

Adam Roberts said...

David: thanks, yes, you're (obviously) quite right about Kelly Gang -- I've amended the post. Thank you, as well, for the statistical info.

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Mij said...

My comment is on a slightly different theme of the Booker award, but I thought I'd ask an expert:

Is there a list somewhere of UK, Irish, & Commonwealth authors who have never been longlisted, shortlisted, or won a Booker, even though their books are topnotch?

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