Literary Prizes Are Getting It Right When It Comes to Diveristy


When the Man Booker Prize shortlist was released earlier this month, it was hailed as one of the most diverse shortlists in the prize’s history. The list was praised not only for its stylistic inclusiveness (the longlist covered all kinds of contemporary fiction, from "the epic to the miniaturist"), but for its global flavor, as it showcases the citizens of six different countries, including New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and Japan. The list is also dominated by women. This is all good news, but it still raises a question: are literary prizes encouraging diversity or stifling it? Critiquing these lists will allow us to appraise the contemporary literary landscape, and see both what's being rewarded, and what we're missing.

Take, for instance, recent winners of the Nobel Prize in literature. Last year’s winner, Mo Yan, was the first Chinese citizen to win the award. The Nobel committee described his work as, "hallucinatory realism [that] merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary." This contrasts sharply with the work of 2011’s winner, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who, in the words of the committee, "gives us fresh access to reality" through, "his condensed, translucent images." Each Nobel winner seems to have brought something different to literature, whether it is Doris Lessing, "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire, and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny," or Harold Pinter, whose plays uncover, "the precipice under everyday prattle and [force] entry into oppression's closed rooms." In recent years, the Nobel Prize in literature has taken full advantage of its international field, celebrating authors from around the world, and promoting them to a global audience.

While the Pulitzer Prize for fiction can only go to an American, the winners of the award represent a wide variety of stylistic conventions and voices. This year, Adam Johnson won for The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel set in North Korea. The Pulitzer committee called the book, "exquisitely crafted," and noted that it explores, "the most intimate spaces of the human heart." This contrasts sharply with Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won in 2011. Egan’s novel was called, "an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age." Other recent winners include Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

The picture does change slightly when you look at genre-specific awards. Take the Hugo Award, for instance. While the full list of winners is dominated by Western men, the award goes out of its way to celebrate the full breadth of fantasy and science fiction writing. While this year's shortlist only includes Americans, it acknowledges a variety of writing styles, from winner John Scalzi’s comedic Red Shirts to Saladin Ahmed’s One Thousand and One Nights-inspired Throne of the Crescent Moon, to Mira Grant’s zombie horror book Blackout. The list also tips its hat to the literary side of science fiction by including the writers Kim Stanley Robinson and four-time Hugo Award-winner Lois McMaster Bujold.

This brings us back to the Man Booker Prize. The last four prizes — Hilary Mantel won in 2009 and 2012, Julian Barnes won in 2011, and Howard Jacobson won in 2010 — were all awarded for English language works. However, the authors represent vastly different writing styles. Mantel won for the first two books in her historical fiction trilogy, Barnes for his elegiac and nostalgic novel Sense of an Ending, and Howard Jacobson for his comic and thought-provoking book The Finkler Question. While the Booker doesn't reward authors writing in another language, it tries to reward a variety of writing styles. (When the Man Group was announced that the Man Booker Prize will be open to Americans starting next year, there was an immediate backlash, as many fear that this will allow Americans to monopolize a market they already dominate. Philip Hensher, a Booker winner, suggested that the inclusion of American books will lead to the loss of, "new, interesting voices.")

Obviously, all prizes are limited in their own ways. Nobel prizes tend to go to established authors who have been writing for decades, Pulitzer prizes are limited by geography, Hugos are limited by genre, and the Booker prize is limited by language. Even so, each prize is doing what it can to encourage a variety of stories and storytellers. Perhaps the most important question that is left is how literary prizes are limited by what is, and isn't, published. No matter how diverse an award tries to be, it’s still going to be limited by what’s out there.