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The Fall and Fall of the Man Booker

In light of last week’s announcement that the Man Booker is back to plain old Booker after Man Group withdrew its sponsorship I thought it was a good time to share my thoughts on the steady decline of the UK’s most prestigious literary prize.

I wrote this as part of my studies at Kingston University before the most recent scandal shook the prize.

Man Booker Winners 2000-2015

Has the Booker run its course?

From the ‘must buy’ books for the intelligent reader to frankly, my dear, it’s esoteric trollop. How the Booker prize short list has fallen from grace.

In this post I’ll be investigating the myriad complaints lodged against the UK book industry’s most coveted literary prize.

‘Posh Bingo’

The prize winners, especially in recent years have been seen as pandering to literary tastes inaccessible to the average reader. Many critics identify Mantel’s 2012 win for Bring up the Bodies as the most recent example of a ‘people’s winner’ and think that as a result the prize is ‘fast losing its shine’.[1]

If Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad wasn’t considered for the prize having won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction then it can be argued that the prize is no longer a reliable gage of what ‘intelligent readers’ are reading or will enjoy.[2] Similarly the ousting of Sally Rooney’s Normal People (which has now sold over 100,000 copies, in part thanks to being named Waterstone’s Books of the Year)[3] at the shortlist stage while the somewhat obtuse Overstory was included demonstrated to some that the judges care more about appearing intelligent than picking the most deserving winner. This has been a common theme of criticism against the panel in recent years.[4]

However, it is important to remember that the Man Booker is just one prize and that its criteria make it incredibly subjective.

A sign of the times?

Many of the issues raised by its critics highlight some inherent difficulties for a prize with the Man Booker’s scope. One expert has, in effect, renounced the Booker as elitist and exclusionary. She writes “The Man Booker Prize doesn’t represent the best of literature, it represents the worst of pretension in literature.”[5] Her criticism centres on the inaccessibility of the books to normal book buyers and sees this as part of the hypocrisy of the wider book industry. This is supported by the fact that in 2018 the bestselling (so one can assume most popular) longlist titles were discarded when the shortlist was announced.[6]

However, the longlist, shortlist and eventual winner are necessarily the personal preferences of the panel (heck even the submissions process makes it subjective). So anyone anticipating a prize which year on year reflects the will of all ‘intelligent readers’ of all types is being overly optimistic.

Many of the arguments raised in critique of the prize are contradictory. It’s accused of being too literary, of not being literary enough. Of being exclusive, of allowing in any old rubbish. It seems obvious that in a modern book publishing climate the job of judges is becoming increasingly taxing (in 2018 the panel were required to read 171 submissions)[7]. In all of this quagmire of griping the arguments I find most compelling are that the list no longer serves the readers it set out to. I would counter this, however, by suggesting that those readers no longer exist. With the dawn of the internet, book bloggers, online reviews and online book-buying the ‘intelligent reader’ no longer requires a prize to dictate to them the best books available. We are spoilt with choice and therein lies the problem. Now that everyone can access any book at the touch of a button the opportunity to build independently formed opinions is available to anyone (as is the opportunity to shout about that opinion for better or worse).

Canada Graph

Graph shows the relative interest in ManBooker winners in Canada from 2013-2017

Moving Forward

It might be time to let go of our attachment to the Booker. It has become less relevant in a world where everything, yes even reading literary books, has become more democratic. It is perhaps this democratisation which makes having the ‘best book published’ dictated to us by a panel of judges with a somewhat snooty reputation sit less comfortably than it did in the past.

We have the world at our fingertips and the opinions to prove it so why should we accept the diktats of esteemed literary judges? The prize no longer holds a monopoly on exposing us to good books. Despite this it’s certainly helpful in championing a selection of the truly exceptional and in this capacity I can see the prize having a long and happy future. It is our unrealistic expectations which are betraying us here and if we don’t revise our relationship with the Man Booker and the novels which are associated with it then we stand to lose out.

It was a year of Booker fatigue for many but it will be interesting to see if it has redeemed itself after Anna Burns was named the winner in 2018. (She’s not American, tick, she didn’t write a novel about trees, tick, the post announcement sales have demonstrated she’s popular with ‘normies’, tick). I’m certainly one reader who will continue to use the shortlist as a guide for finding new literary talent and I’d encourage you to as well.

Anna Burns [accessed 4/1/18]




Works Cited

Cooke, Rachel, The Guardian Online, ‘Has the Booker Prize Lost its Mojo?’, 2018, accessed 12/18  []

Fry, Jackie, Booknet Canada, ‘Golden Best Booker of Bookers’, 2018, accessed 1/19,          []

Marsden, Stevie, Medium, ‘Why I’m Done with the Man Booker Prize and you Should be Too’, 2018, accessed          12/18, [          be-too-ad0057b95baf]

Preston, Alex, The Guardian Online, ‘How do the Final Six Stand Up?’ 2018, accessed 1/19,  [            up]

Wood, Heloise, The Bookseller Online, ‘Editing role ‘needs championing in-house’ trade figures say’, 2018, accessed 12/18, [     man-booker-judges-gripe-871666]



[1] [accessed 31/12/18]

[2] [accessed 31/12/18

[3] Nielsen Bookscan [accessed 4/1/19]

[4] [accessed 30/12/18]

[5] [accessed 30/12/18]

[6] [accessed 3/1/19]

[7] [accessed 31/12/18]

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