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
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 %)
29 (12 %)
9 (6.8 %)
1 (under 1%)
1 (under 1%)
2 (under 1%)
St Kitts (WI)
[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 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—
Even if we add in Byatt's Possession, we're still talking about only
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’.