“Women Dominate Shortlist for International Booker Prize,” reads the headline of Alex Marshall’s Thursday article for the New York Times. He notes that five of the six books on the shortlist this year were written by women. The novels do look interesting — I haven’t read Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob or Jon Fosse’s latest in his New Name series and want to pick up both — but it’s hardly news that women “dominate” the International Booker. They have dominated every major literary prize in the last few years.
Four of the last six winners of the International Booker have been women. While winners of the Booker (not the International Booker) over the last six years are split right down the middle, women outnumber men twenty-two to fourteen on the shortlist. If you happen to be a straight white man, which is the second largest demographic after straight white women in the United Kingdom, your chances of winning the Booker are pretty slim. George Saunders is the only one who has won — in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo — in the last six years.
In the United States, things are even more lopsided. I looked at the winners and finalists from the last five years of America’s four major literary prizes for fiction: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
The results won’t surprise you. Only two of the twenty winners were white men — one openly gay. The only heterosexual white man to win a major literary award for fiction in America in the last five years is Richard Powers for The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer, and which however accomplished the work is — and it is accomplished — is also a work of ecological activism.
Half of the winners were nonwhite women. Black women won 25 percent of the awards even though they only make up 6.8 percent of the population. Overall, women won 70 percent of the time. No man, regardless of race, has won either the National Book Critics Circle Award or the PEN/Faulkner Award in the last five years.
White men, of course, used to dominate these prizes, and it is fair game, some argue, for the tables to be turned. That may be. In the 1980s (the NBCC started in 1975 and PEN/Faulkner in 1981), white men won 77 percent of the prizes.
Still, it was better to be a black woman in the Eighties than it is to be a white man today — as far as literary prizes in fiction go. Black women won 7.7 percent of the above literary prizes for fiction between 1980 and 1989, which is a little higher than the percentage of black women in the population at the time (6.1 percent). White men make up 30 percent of the population today but have only won 10 percent of the time in the last five years.
One result of this trend, which goes back further than five years and which shows no sign of slowing, is that it can create the impression that the white male novelist is dead, at least among those who follow the field superficially. In her recent New York essay “Gone Boys,” Hillary Kelly wonders what happened to white male novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer: “It’s as if the last descendants in the long line of white male literary Calliopes finally petered out, leaving the field wide open.”
They haven’t petered out — yet — but they are being ignored by prize committees. Phil Klay’s Missionaries was praised by the New York Times — it was a Times notable book — and the Wall Street Journal when it was published in 2020. Even Barack Obama loved it and said so. But it didn’t make any shortlist. Christopher Beha’s Index of Self-Destructive Acts was praised to skies in the press, but it only made the longlist for the National Book Award. Overseas, Francis Spufford’s beautiful Golden Hill was nearly completely ignored. Will he get any attention for Light Perpetual?
Who cares, you might say. Well, yes, who cares about literary prizes. They have always been flawed. They ignore great writers, reward mediocre ones. And white male novelists will be fine, even if there is some indication that fewer men are writing or submitting work to major publishing houses.
Literary prizes are a bit of a racket, and it’s odd to see critic after critic write about women dominating the fiction prizes — prizes that were presumed to be terribly flawed when men were winning — as if this change in affairs marks the beginning of a new era of transparency, where the best writers are always lauded and the absence of prize-winning novels by white men is taken as evidence that white men are no longer doing “interesting” work.