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date: 29 March 2023

The Booker Prize and Post-Imperial British Literaturefree

The Booker Prize and Post-Imperial British Literaturefree

  • Chris HolmesChris HolmesDepartment of English, Ithaca College


In the particular and peculiar case of the Booker Prize, regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the United Kingdom (as measured by economic value to the author and publisher, and total audience for the awards announcement), the cultural and economic valences of literary prizes collide with the imperial history of Britain, and its after-empire relationships to its former colonies. From its beginnings, the Booker prize has never been simply a British prize for writers in the United Kingdom. The Booker’s reach into the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose cultural and economic alliance of the United Kingdom and former British colonies, challenges the very constitution of the category of post-imperial British literature. With a history of winners from India, South Africa, New Zealand, and Nigeria, among many other former British colonies, the Booker presents itself as a value arbitrating mechanism for a majority of the English-speaking world. Indeed, the Booker has maintained a reputation for bringing writers from postcolonial nations to the attention of a British audience increasingly hungry for a global, cosmopolitan literature, especially one easily available via the lingua franca of English. Whether and how the prize winners avoid the twin colonial pitfalls of ownership by and debt to an English patron is the subject of a great deal of criticism on the Booker, and to understand the prize as a gatekeeper and tastemaker for the loose, baggy canon of British or even global Anglophone literature, there must be a reckoning with the history of the prize, its multiplication into several prizes under one umbrella category, and the form and substance of the novels that have taken the prize since 1969.


  • North American Literatures
  • British and Irish Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)

The Booker Prize is the most influential literary award in the English-speaking world. It is also famously a profit windfall for the UK publisher of that year’s winning novel. Sales in the hundreds of thousands of copies are de rigeur for the publishing houses responsible for putting forth candidate novels, with the five leading publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster) reaping vast monetary rewards for carrying a Booker winner. And yet, from its first awarding in 1969, the Booker has built a global reputation for itself by defining capaciously the novel in English, beginning by adopting the boundaries of the Commonwealth Nations as part of a British cultural map, and eventually broadening to include any novel written in English that finds a publisher in the United Kingdom and/or Ireland. The prize’s expansive vantage has had evolving parameters, to put it mildly, with the notable exception of the purposeful exclusion of the United States until 2014.1 Since the late-1970s, the Booker prize has gone to a writer from a former British colony at least 50 percent of the time, and its “Best of the Booker,” “Golden Booker,” and Anniversary Awards, at the twenty-fifth, fortieth, and fiftieth year of the prize, have gone exclusively to Commonwealth authors (Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, twice the anniversary prize winner, and Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, respectively). With its increased notoriety as the standard-bearer for the novel in English, the purse for the prize has grown from what was already an impressive £5,000 in 1969 to a doubling in 1978, and, as of 2020, the largest monetary prize in England, £50,000.

The radical shift to admit the United States in 2014 altered the constitution of the prize from a specifically Commonwealth and UK award to one that seeks to understand itself as a prize for any novel in English. Add to this fundamental change the Booker’s linguistic expansion into multiple prizes including the Booker International Prize, which was originally given to an author as a lifetime achievement award, but which evolved into an award for a single novel written in a language other than English that is published by a British or Irish house. With the addition of the Booker International offshoot, the prize’s self-conception has transformed from a fairly tightly understood postcolonial prize that worked to reestablish cultural connections between Britain and her former colonies, to an award that begins to mirror some of the early-21st-century debates around world literature in contemporary literary studies: How does literature travel from a national locality to an international audience? Is English the lingua franca of the global novel? Is world literature a function of late capital’s demand for homogenous cultural commodities?, and so on. In response to these questions, critics such as Sarah Brouillette have called for further examinations of the specific “interconnections between the content of the literary work and the circuits through which texts pass as they are produced and consumed.”2

Why Literary Prizes?

What is the value of a literary prize to the idea of a national literature? Can an annual award for a single novel or author shape the cultural self-conception of a nation? Literary prizes have existed in one form or another for many centuries. The earliest formal literary awards in the English-speaking world in the 19th century followed the long history of the patronage system of kings and rulers bestowing prizes as a bond of loyalty with the subject. Since the mid-20th century, literary prizes in Europe and the United States have emphasized a so-called neutrality in seeking out great works of literature, often going to lengths to separate the prize winners from the corporate and personal wealth required to fund and direct the prizes. Social theorists have long been interested in understanding how cultural capital or “symbolic capital” (using a term popularized by Pierre Bourdieu) is accrued via literary prize and award.3 In the case of a literary prize for a single work—as opposed to those that highlight a lifetime’s work by a single author—symbolic capital can be seen as both cultural capital (an artist or artwork worth prizing) and economic capital (a work of literature is valuable because it was prized, making future works by the same author more valuable). The economic rewards for publishers listing award winners in their catalogue are undeniable, with data on the major prizes in Britain showing sales increases of a single prized work increasing three- and fourfold, with the publishers’ increase in overall sales growing accordingly.4 The major annual literary prizes in Britain—The Costa/Whitbread, Orange/Women’s Prize for fiction, Folio, Dublin IMPAC, and the Booker—are anticipated by large audiences of readers who use the prizes as consumer guides to define literary taste. As Graham Huggan puts it: “literary prizes function as legitimizing mechanisms that foreground the symbolic, as well as material, effects of the process of literary evaluation.”5 The collected prize winners form a canon of sorts, a catalogue that comes to represent, accurately or not, the aesthetic trajectory of British literature.

In the particular and peculiar case of the Booker Prize,6 regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the United Kingdom (as measured by economic value to the author and publisher and total audience for the awards announcement),7 the cultural and economic valences of literary prizes collide with the imperial history of Britain, and its after-empire relationships to its former colonies. From its beginnings, the Booker prize has never been simply a British prize for writers in the United Kingdom. The Booker’s reach into the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose cultural and economic alliance of the United Kingdom and former British colonies, challenges the very constitution of the category of post-imperial British literature. With a history of winners from India, South Africa, New Zealand, and Nigeria, among many other former British colonies, the Booker presents itself as a value arbitrating mechanism for a majority of the English-speaking world. Indeed, the Booker has maintained a reputation for bringing writers from postcolonial nations to the attention of a British audience increasingly hungry for a global, cosmopolitan literature, especially one easily available via the lingua franca of English. At the center of that transactional relationship is Stephen Levin’s question of what precisely is lost and gained “when a cosmopolitan center assumes so central a role in sanctifying a particular form [of literature] and in reconfiguring the boundaries between the global and the local”?8 Whether and how the prize winners avoid the twin colonial pitfalls of ownership by and debt to an English patron is the subject of a great deal of criticism on the Booker, and to understand the prize as a gatekeeper and tastemaker for the loose, baggy canon of British or even global Anglophone literature, there must be a reckoning with the history of the prize, its multiplication into several prizes under one umbrella category, and the form and substance of the novels that have taken the prize since 1969.

A Fraught Beginning: The Booker Prize as Scandal

When John Berger ascended to the dais to receive the 1972 Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel G, it would have been a low-odds bet to imagine that he would be donating half his prize to the London branch of the Black Panther party and using the rest to seed a nonfiction book on migrant workers in Europe (what would later become A Seventh Man). And yet, in retrospect, Berger’s direct confrontation of the Booker’s purse as ill-gotten gains from the colonial exploitation of the Caribbean by the parent company Booker-McConnell might stand as the most meaningful examination of the prize’s postcolonial legacy by a winner to date. Berger’s speech at the award’s dinner is the stuff of legend, and it has made the rumor-mill rounds as a story of knee-jerk politics and the spectacle of a sour winner (who manages to retain half the prize money), with accompanying apocryphal tales of Berger refusing the award and giving everything to the Panthers. The speech itself, in retrospect, is quite moderated in its criticism of the Booker prize, with Berger explicitly thanking the judges for their selection of a short-list representative of “the kind of imaginative non-conformity” that Berger was seeking in his own writing. Indeed, he writes: “that they gave a prize to my book gave me pleasure—because it represented a response, a response from other writers.”9 James English considers the Berger incident to be one of a number of media-catching scandals in the early years of the Booker that had the ironic effect of catapulting the prize into the popular culture psyche, especially in Britain:

This incident alone gave an enormous boost to the Booker’s public profile, but it had been prepared for by the intemperate behavior of another (in this case right-wing) television celebrity, Malcolm Muggeridge, the year before, and it was reinforced by another politicized, anti-Booker acceptance speech by J. G. Farrell [winner of the Booker in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur] the following year.10

Farrell’s chastisement of the Booker establishment and nostalgic vision of a world where “British miners would get higher priority than businessmen, and rich people would not be able to buy privileged schooling for their children,” is for Levin evidence of the Booker’s ability to contain both commercial appeal and the denouncement of corporate sponsorship.11

What radicalism there is in the speech comes from Berger’s desire to “turn this prize against itself,” offering part of the winnings as a token but symbolically meaningful acknowledgement that cultural capital is always built, in part, from the sufferings of the precarious, in this case, the colonial subject. Berger goes on to suggest that the original seed money and continued support from what was at that point in the prize’s history the Booker-McConnell corporate sponsorship serves to render invisible the rapacious activities of these corporate interests which continue to exploit black bodies for private gain, and, public, cultural influence in the postcolonial era:

This is why I intend to share the prize with those West Indians in and from the Caribbean who are fighting to put an end to their exploitation. The London-based Black Panther movement has arisen out of the bones of what Bookers and other companies have created in the Caribbean; I want to share this prize with the Black Panther movement because they resist both as black people and workers the further exploitation of the oppressed. And because, through their Black People’s Information Centre, they have links with the struggle in Guyana, the seat of Booker McConnell’s wealth, in Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean: the struggle whose aim is to expropriate all such enterprises.12

What Berger flags as “the seat of Booker McConnell’s [ill-gotten] wealth,” is, by direct association, a critique of what has been most notable about the Booker prize since its inception in 1969: its expansive sense of its own cultural territory, its claim of a Commonwealth of literary nations that can be collected under the umbrella category of “novels in English,” and its historical amnesia in adopting for itself old colonial territories in the name of prizing a tacit “British” literary excellence.13 Such is the post-imperial nature of the prize and of contemporary British literature more broadly: questions of value are presented as literary but operate as statements of sociopolitical comity between nations with vexed colonial histories. Such things are never so simple or as painless as the Booker’s history might suggest.14

When it comes to the nature of literary prizes, these loaded questions of value are both material—the prize money and exponentially increased sales figures are undeniably valuable—and cultural—the winner becomes a symbol of what, in the Booker’s particular case, constitutes greatness in the novel form as a universal quality. But the Booker cannot be understood outside the broader trend toward more and more literary prizes in Britain. James English examines the commercial valences of literary prizes, which

in Britain have become vastly more numerous, more widely publicized, more symbolically potent, more lucrative in themselves, and more capable of increasing books sales than ever before. In terms of scale and impact, the phenomenon is simply unprecedented, and no history of postwar British literature can afford to overlook the role played by prizes in the more general reshaping of literary culture.15

If post-1945 literary culture in Britain has been shaped by the rise of prize culture, then the Booker can lay claim as a kingmaker within that prize culture by virtue of its purse and its unparalleled cultural capital as a guide for the reading public in the United Kingdom.

Broadly, the scholarship on literary prizes has tried to understand the questions of value at the nexus of the material and the cultural. With few exceptions, scholars find that literary prize commissions, particularly those seated in the Western metropolises, view themselves as neutrally meritocratic, constantly and vigilantly on the search for the next great work of literature. This stands in contrast to the persistent questions and controversies concerning the same prizes’ selection criteria, cultural–historical sensitivity, election of judges, and so forth. Stevie Marsden, writing on the history of prize culture, recalls that “the founding of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996 was, for example, in part inspired by an all-male Booker Prize short list in 1991 and the fact that by 1992, only 10 percent of novelists shortlisted for the Booker Prize had been women.” Of the hundreds of literary prizes to receive significant critical attention in Britain, it is the Booker that continually prompts public and academic reappraisals, as it is both the most explicitly postcolonial in its self-fashioning and, arguably, the most influential prize in the Anglophone world.16

From an Exacting Vagueness to a Firm Mush: A History of the Booker Prize(s)

Because of the Booker’s ever broadening borders, its annual changeover of prize juries, and its desire to prize what it likes without any discernable mission beyond “the great novel in English,” it is elusive as a standard-bearer for British literature, seemingly trackable only by its ever-lengthening list of prize winners. Even in the founding moments of the prize’s history, trying to understand exactly what precisely the Booker values in its winners was less than clear. In 2013, the website for the Booker listed the mission as identifying “fiction at its finest’,” and the promotion of “the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year.”17 An expansive charter, to say the least. Putting a finer point on it, Richard Todd distills the problem with the Booker to the definitional: “The conundrum that the Booker has never really faced up to is that there is no real consensus as to what its terms of reference actually are.” Responding to the Booker commission’s John Bayley from a 1994 Booker press release where Bayley harangued critics who “object that although the Booker is the most prestigious in the world of the English novel, all such prizes tend to commercialize art. I find this rubbish,” Todd puts his finger on the political conundrum for the prize: “it is unclear whether by the English novel Bayley means the novel in Britain or the English language novel.”18 As chair of the 1994 Booker jury, Bayley may have had a point given the limited commercial success and infamous impenetrability of that year’s winner, John Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, a work of stream of consciousness narrated in a working-class Scottish dialect.

The capaciousness of the prize’s directive—adjudicating the best of any novel (clarified later to be written in English, and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland) in a given year—offered an imprimatur for the Booker to look outside the bounds of the United Kingdom for novelistic achievement, making it one of the earliest markers of the cultural capital of the so-called new world literature. Borrowing heavily from the French Prix Goncourt for inspiration—the Goncourt similarly uses linguistic kinship as its arch-criterion—the Booker moved quickly to best its older cousin by offering a £5,000 prize, then a significantly larger purse.19 The appeal of the larger monetary prize, matched with the broad scope of the “any novel in English” mandate, projected a catholic view of British literature defined by new expansive Commonwealth boundaries. Richard Todd sees the history of the prize as “the history of the replacement of ‘the English novel’ by ‘the novel published in Britain,” with such a transition calling into question the very designations of Englishness and Britishness.20 Huggan writes of the Commonwealth map that guided the early Booker in what is one of the more blistering estimations of the prize’s colonial center/periphery problem:

Eligibility for the Prize has historically been organised around Commonwealth literary principles, with Commonwealth nationals, plus Pakistani, Irish, and (now readmitted to the Commonwealth) South African writers entitled to win the spoils. Most of the judges, however…remain British, thereby reinforcing the earlier, now largely discredited view that farflung Commonwealth fictions should be referred for validation back to the ‘parent [British] stock.’21

Huggan’s figuration of the Booker as a powerful refraction of postcolonial cultural value back on Britain reinforces a long-standing critique of the Booker as a return to imperial patronage in the guise of internationalism. In a more charitable view, Todd offers that “for practical reasons the judges are customarily resident in Britain.”22 But in both characterizations, the Booker’s expansive reach into the Commonwealth is offset by an inward-looking judging process (with the occasional American guest judge, notably Saul Bellow in 1971). And while the racial and gender makeup of the judging panel has grown increasingly more diverse, British nationality tends to be the norm. The Commonwealth itself—a political and cultural alignment of sorts formed in the wake of decolonization and the Balfour Declaration of 1926—is a designation, literary and otherwise, that has been regularly disputed.23 Salman Rushdie infamously declared that “commonwealth literature does not exist.”24

The colonial geographies of the Commonwealth are not uncomplicated. Their existence is predicated on acceding to an imperialist cartography, even in the absence of empire. Which countries are allowed access to this postcolonial atlas of cultural capital is entirely dependent on the imprimatur of a nonprofit organization funded by corporations whose wealth has, in ways explicit and otherwise, been derived from historical colonial entanglements. While not stated outright, it was understood that this exclusion of the United States until 2014 was designed to prevent a tsunami of American contenders from diluting what had heretofore been a nominally British prize. But if the Booker can be seen as one measure of British literature’s identity, then the inclusion of the United States in the geographical sphere of the Booker either made Britain quite a lot larger or simply made its post-imperial insularity more transparent. In 1994, The Guardian’s literary editor Richard Gott, described the prize as “a significant and dangerous iceberg in the sea of British culture that serves as a symbol of its current malaise,” with the exclusion of American authors cited as evidence of a claustrophobic insularity in British culture.25 Paula Morris, writing in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, has a more pessimistic and postcolonial take, finding the anxiety around American inclusion to be a sign of how little the writers of the Commonwealth are valued:

The recent backlash against admitting US writers to the Booker reveals the perception of Commonwealth writers—both by British publishers and by writers—as a distant third in anglophone writing, easily forgotten and excluded from publishing lists, prize contention, and judging panels.26

When the Booker trust ultimately voted to admit American authors for consideration, a group of executives from British publishing houses called for a retraction of the invitation over fears of a homogenizing of the prize winners:

The rule change, which presumably had the intention of making the prize more global, has in fact made it less so, by allowing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others; and risks turning the prize, which was once a brilliant mechanism for bringing the world’s English-language writers to the attention of the world’s biggest English-language market, into one that is no longer serving the readers in that market. . . . [It] will therefore be increasingly ignored.27

These fears of an outsized American influence were not completely unfounded, as the prize has gone to a writer living in the United States three times between 2014 and 2019, with a slew of short-listed Americans, as well.28 The 2020 long list for the independent Booker prize featured a staggering nine US finalists out of the thirteen writers on the long list.29

The controversy over the exclusion and ultimate admittance of American writers into the Booker’s flexible Commonwealth is in line with the prize’s self-awareness of its global reach. Richard Todd sees the prize, “however controversial,” acting “as a consumers’ guide,” with the “entire constellation [of shortlisters and winners] form[ing] a kind of commercial ‘canon’.”30 Critical work on the prize’s history has asked whether it is indeed much of a prize at all for the national literatures of the Commonwealth given that many view the selection process as a tacit demand for consumable, translatable exoticisms, giving preference to a narrow range of metropolitan authors who then come to represent (at least commercially) India, Nigeria, New Zealand, South Africa, and other literatures of the global south for commuters on the London Tube and the New York Metro.31 Hugh Eakin writes of the Booker’s globality, that “despite its ‘multicultural consciousness’, [it] has arguably done less to further the development of ‘non-Western’ and/or postcolonial literatures than to encourage the commerce of an ‘exotic’ commodity catered to the Western literary market.”32

From the Postcolonial to the World: The Booker Prize and the Global Novel

The Booker Prize offers a testing ground for how the unique locality of postcolonial literature is translated into the broad cosmopolitan reach of Anglophone literature. Reading postcolonially, one’s impulse is to defend the novel against the blanching of difference that seems to follow the broad translatability of world literature. It is also to balk against, what is for many postcolonial writers, the unwilling assent to translatability. For some critics and theorists, the very constitution of postcolonial literature is its untranslatability. Elleke Boehmer defines the énoncé of postcoloniality in these strict terms: the “otherness of the postcolonial text” is one of “untranslatable cultural specificity” that calls for “locally rooted and uniquely distinct perceptions.”33 The rootedness required for the exegesis of the postcolonial novel conflicts directly with the primary tenet of the Booker, namely the infinite translatability of the Anglophone novel across cultural boundaries. Through its unreserved comparison of an idea of literary excellence, the Booker does not so much elide all difference, as it does translate that difference into a nexus of comparativity—it claims an equivalent difference as its modus operandi. The prize pulls novels from the spaces of locality into the network of global novels in English. But if postcolonial theory struggles to fix rules for how meaning is derived from rooted analyses of the local, what are the rules of the Booker? And what if there are none?

A brief look at the winners of the Man Booker Prize since 1969 shows a tacit commitment by the prize juries to novels written by and about postcolonial subjects. There is V. S. Naipaul (1971), Nadine Gordimer (1974), Salman Rushdie (1981), J. M. Coetzee (1983), Ben Okri (1991), Arundhati Roy (1997), Peter Carey (1998), Kiran Desai (2006), and Aravind Adiga (2008) just to name a few of the writers from postcolonial nations to win the Booker since 1969, and the numbers grow considerably when the short-list is brought into account. In addition to its clear interest in prizing the literatures of the Commonwealth nations, the Booker offers a literary historical monument to the demographic changes inside the shrinking island of Britain proper, welcoming the examples of British postcolonial writing wherever they might be composed and treating them to a strange homecoming. “On the one hand,” writes Graham Huggan, invoking Jonathan Wilson, “the Prize reflects an increasing cultural, as well as commercial, recognition that ‘the better books have been coming not out of England per se but out of the colonies of England. On the other hand, the Prize, in assuming a common (‘English’) cultural heritage, might be accused of availing itself of a patron’s proprietary rights.”34 In other words, there is little doubt that the Booker Prize has leveraged its access to the literary goods of Britain’s former empire. But the easy access to those national literatures has given the prize’s devoted following a catalogue more reflective of a global literary tradition. The vision of the hand of the empire plucking out worthy examples from its former colonies to bring back to London feels reminiscent of Cecil Rhodes’s colonial-era scholarship to Oxford which tacitly promoted the idea of a beneficent British Empire to Southern Africa, but the network of literary influence and circulation is much more complicated than that easy comparison.35 Nuances notwithstanding, the problem of the center and periphery of capital and indebtedness endures in the Booker Prize’s relatively compact history.

The 2019 prize offers a perfect example of this inside/outside logic with a rare dual-prize selection of both the Black British writer, Bernadine Evaristo, for Girl, Woman, Other, and Canada’s Margaret Atwood, for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Testaments.36 Evaristo, an academic (Brunel) and many-times prized novelist, critic, poet, and playwright was well-known within England prior to being shortlisted and ultimately winning the Booker, with her novella, “Hello Mum” (2010), having been chosen for the “Big Read” by the County of Suffolk. But her co-winner, Margaret Atwood, enjoys a rarefied place in what might be called the Anglophone canon of world literature, with her works translated into over hundred languages and millions of pounds of global sales. It is clear that the Booker contributed to this reputation with its first prizing of Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000).

Atwood’s selection mirrors the reprizing of globally recognizable authors from Commonwealth countries, with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) being the archetypal example of the global-Booker, with subsequent wins for Midnight’s as the “Best of the Booker,” in both 1993 and 2008, awarded for the twenty-fifth and fortieth special anniversary prizes. Rushdie was notably and publicly angry at losing a second, proper Booker prize to J. M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K (1983).37 However, Midnight’s has gone on to sell well over one million copies in the United Kingdom alone.38 Even when the globally marketable authors are not multiple winners of the Booker Prize—J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey, and Hillary Mantel have each won twice, Mantel being the only author to win for two books of a trilogy39—the short list is fat with international stars: Michael Ondaatje, whose Booker path looks a lot like Rushdie’s (The English Patient, winner in 1992, subsequently winner of the Golden Booker in 2018, with a long-listing for Warlight in 2019), Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, winner 1989, An Artist of the Floating World, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go were all shortlisted), Ian McEwan (Amsterdam, winner 1998, Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs, Atonement, Chesil Beach, shortlisted), Nadine Gordimer (The Conservationist, winner 1974, The Pickup, longlisted).40 For a young prize, founded in the late 20th century, there are an enormous number of repeat authors coming before the judges, including Beryl Bainbridge, who tragicomically has been shortlisted so many times without a win that the Booker invented a “Best of Beryl” prize (2011) in order to make sure that the “Booker Bridesmaid” could finally have one.41 The Booker Prize, it would seem, prefers to prize its own.

What is fascinating about the Booker’s self-perception as a prize for writers outside the United Kingdom are the ways in which the prize has cloned itself into multiple prizes, with a purposeful movement toward a global reach beyond the Commonwealth. In 2004, the Man Booker organization (then sponsored by The Man Group ltd) expanded to include the Man International Prize, an award for the collected body of works by a single author outside the loose Commonwealth geography of the independent Booker. By removing the standard of English as the origin language, the prize allowed for translations, as long as the target language remained English. By looking at a body of work, rather than an individual novel, the prize had morphed into something more like the Nobel Prize for Literature, the standard-bearer for international letters. The new prize also did away with the generic limitation of the novel form, with the first winner of the Man International, Ismail Kadare, being most notable as a poet and essayist writing in Albanian. Having predated the inclusion of the United States in the prize-worthy geography of the Independent Booker, the Man International considered US authors far enough afield to be included in this new prize. Indeed, of the six awarded prizes, American writers took two: the novelist Phillip Roth; and the essayist, translator, and fiction writer Lydia Davis. This iteration of the Booker’s expansion into translated and non-Commonwealth literatures lasted for six years as a prize for a life’s work before spinning off into a larger award for a single work of literature.

Following directly after the dissolution of the Man International Prize, the International Booker Prize differs both in its emphasis on a particular work of literature, rather than on an artist and in its clear preference for work in translation, as the £50,000 prize is split between author and translator. The process for awarding the International Booker looks more like the Independent Booker, with announcements of a long list and short list in the months before the final award ceremony, allowing for a more substantial catalogue of marketable also-rans. The first prize awarded went to the South Korean writer Han Kang, for her novel The Vegetarian (2016), which was widely praised by Anglo-American critics as “a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet.”42 Whether purposefully or not, the new rubric for the International Booker negated any fear of American hegemony, with the prizes in 2016–2020 going to authors from South Korea, Israel, Poland, Oman, and The Netherlands. What remains to be seen is whether or not the International Booker will remain simply an auxiliary or offshoot of the main, so-called independent Booker, or become a meaningful counternarrative to the Booker’s Anglophone focus.

Is There a Booker Type?

Can a minor aesthetic as delimited by the Booker Prize, with just over fifty total winners, be a meaningful measure of the temperature and constitution of post-imperial British fiction? Are the Booker’s passions and commitments a reaction to a reading public more interested in transnational literatures, or is the prize a catalyst to more homogenous “difference,” what editors at the magazine N+1 call a “world lite,” the readymade historical and postcolonial fictions in forms and styles already recognized as culturally valuable by the Booker?43 In short, does the prize select novels that replicate key stylistic markers and/or sociopolitical concerns for easier circulation among an Anglophone reading audience? These questions are at the heart of whether and how we can understand the post-imperial British novel as a category structured in part by literary prizes. The aesthetic and formal concerns of the novels themselves, those swept into the cultural current of the prize, operate in concert with the inclinations of the Booker toward global literatures as British literature, and toward accessibility of local literature to a metropolitan, Anglophone reading population. While at the same time, the prized novels act as a countervailing force again those instincts and impulses.

With a new panel of judges each year, and an expanding publishing map from which to draw its winners, claiming a recognizable form or style that could be tracked as a Booker type might very well be a fool’s errand. The Booker’s institutional preference for the novel, a highly unstable genre known for adopting features from other genres as readily as it follows any historical prerequisites, suggests a range of formal experiment too broad to expect overlap from year to year in the prize’s canon. And, yet, if the bookies who set the yearly odds for the short list are to be believed, there is something recognizable about a Booker winner.

Various judges and judging panels have expressed clear preferences for a unique Booker style. As the years of the prize accrue, the tacit and explicit rubrics for what is prize-worthy have made their way into the circulatory system of the Booker via the public statements and feuds between judges. At various moments, the judges themselves have excoriated the prizing process for what they felt were overly vulgar or plain, lowbrow or highbrow, or simply unworthy selections. In 2011, Stella Rimington, chair of the judging panel, offered a reactionary critique of the literary politics of critics and publishers who, to her mind had “resorted to ‘black propaganda, destabilization operations, plots, and double agents,” by way of enforcing a radical “KGB” style of political messaging in the world of fiction. Her awards night speech appeared to offer a tacit rejoinder to John Berger’s, and later J. G. Farrell’s and David Lodge’s rejection of the prize’s commercial and colonial interests.44 Prior to the ceremony, Rimington and her judging slate had come under withering criticism for advocating for “readability” and the vague quality of “zip[ping] along” as key criteria for any winning novel.45 The 2011 jury selected The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, an English novelist of enormous commercial notability in England. The Sense of an Ending was shortlisted that same year for the Costa Book Award, a competing British literary prize. Richard Stothard, chair in 2012, rejected the mild entertainments of Rimington’s panel in favor of “books that you can make a sustained critical argument about,” rather than those that can be tossed off with a “wow, I enjoyed it.”46 Stothard’s jury would go on to ignore irony and select Hillary Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies, the second in Mantel’s enormously successful trilogy, which had already won the prize in 2009 for the first of the three novels, Wolf Hall.

If, however, the focus shifts to the particular winners from Commonwealth nations and, more recently, the United States, it is clear that the Booker has a preferred ground for intellectual engagement with the world. It has a sociopolitical leaning, as it were, toward historical novels. Specifically, novels engaged in reckoning with postcolonial historical events that remain unsettled in a national consciousness have, since the 1970s, taken the preponderance of the prizes offered by the Booker under each of its named sponsorships. The fraught question of the nation itself—its indeterminacy, its inherent violence and xenophobia, its operation as nearly the sole rights-bearing organism—is taken up as a cri de coeur in the novels of Booker winners from V. S. Naipaul to Aravind Adiga, Marlon James to Eleanor Catton. Matthew Eatough, writing on Kazuo Ishiguro’s appeal to a middle-brow readership, credits the Booker as the mechanism for the cultivation of “a young, international, and racially-diverse cast of writers” interested in representing certain popular elements in their fiction. In the case of Ishiguro’s The Artist of the Floating World, Eatough suggests:

Set in post-World War II Japan, and consisting of the reflections of a painter who regrets his ideological complicity in the Japanese war effort, An Artist of the Floating World displays many of the dominant motifs of late-twentieth century British fiction—an interrogation of the legacies of empire; a backward-looking, somewhat nostalgic fixation on the past; a concern with the nature of public and private memory; and an interest in examining what it means to belong to a national community.47

And, if Richard Todd is correct in suggesting that the Booker’s major impact is as a “major catalyzing force” to the emergence of “a postcolonial literary era,” then it is in the form of a post-imperial historical novel uncertain about the importance of the nation that this tradition has taken shape.48 And within this tradition of history-obsessive novels, the great preoccupation is with the meaning and value of English itself as the language supposedly capable of carrying postcolonial culture without being overly weighed down by it traumatic associations. It may also be the case that this post-imperial Booker form has been conceived from a single parent text: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Neil Lazarus, the materialist, postcolonial literary critic has made that audacious claim that there is in “a strict sense only one author in the postcolonial literary canon,” writ large.

That author is Salman Rushdie, whose novels—especially Midnight’s Children, Shame, and The Satanic Verses—are endlessly, not to say catechistically, cited in the critical literature as testifying to the instability and indeterminacy of social identity, the volatility and perspectivalism of truth, the narratorial constructedness of history, the ineluctable subjectivisim of memory and experience, the violence implicit in the universal discourse of the nation, the corresponding need to centre analysis on the notions of migrancy, hybridity, diaspora, ‘inbetweenness, translation, and blasphemy’.49

Stephen Levin marks this as a key discomfort among postcolonial critics at the overemphasis on “migrancy, cosmopolitanism, and the transcendence of the nation-state” in the so-called global novels of the Booker. This reading of Midnight’s Children “as a paradigmatic global text nullifies the novel’s substantive regional specificity, steeped as it is in the iconography and history of South Asia.”50 In this equation, the novel’s real engagement with contemporary India via its historical traditions is erased in favor of a broader argument about the global novel after the age of the nation-state. Arguments over what qualifies as real engagement with a local history when the novel in question circulates in a global reading audience are at the very heart of the question of the Booker’s relationship to post-imperial British literature.

There is no mistaking the Booker’s fondness for Rushdie’s masterwork, with Midnight’s special status as the Booker’s Booker and special anniversary prize winner, and that canonization appears to suit the prize commission’s desire to be understood as a global tastemaker, rather than a post/neocolonial literary patron. What remains to be seen is whether or not the Booker Prize can hold in tension the desire for a global, post-imperial British literature capable of looking to its former colonial territories as the centers of literary production and innovation, with the imperative to treat the individual prize novels as themselves part of the debate as to the value of global connection; especially when the daily lives of much of the world’s citizenry are prescribed by the rights and regulations engendered by the existence of individual nations.

If the cultural work of the Booker is inevitably both national and transnational in reach, it can be seen to operate as a kind of barometer for the anxieties of belonging—being “at home in the world”—that have fixated comparative literary studies since the end of the 20th century as the terms of reference have vacillated between global, local, world, and nation. As David Damrosch asserts, “virtually all literary works are born within what we would now call a national literature,” thus the dual nature of the Booker seems to ask what happens when the literary work grows up? It wins the Booker? To understand this tension at the heart of the prize, it is necessary to look at a small sample of the Booker winners that are explicitly defining the parameters and capabilities of the English language to navigate the pull between a local, postcolonial culture, and global trade on recognizable difference in literary commodities.

Impositions: The Booker’s Discomfort With English

Take Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, both debut novels, which went on to massive commercial success, and both have been alternately praised and savaged for their representations of contemporary India. They are both, pointedly, interested in the English language as a dual signal of belonging and exclusion, abundance and loss. If the Booker’s relationship to the marketplace of cultural capital as expressed in its commitments to Anglo-American literary hubs like London and New York says a great deal about the values undergirding how the award is offered, then it is in the novels themselves that literary critics may find counternarratives to the themes of assimilation and indebtedness that tend to dominate how the prize’s influence is understood. Critics interested in how novels travel and circulate across national and global boundaries, complicating what kind of novel gets to pass as post-imperial British literature must turn to the formal and content concerns of the novels themselves.

The irony of Arundhati Roy’s Booker upset win for her debut novel, The God of Small Things (1997), comes fast and furious in her relationship to the prize and to fiction more broadly. In a 2011 interview, Roy reflected on her 1997 prize dismissively: “I’m not somebody who puts much stock in prizes. I’m not even sure that there is such a thing as best book, it’s such a subjective thing. That is not what books are about. So, I think we should just leave aside the Booker Prize.”51 This sentiment, separating books from prizes, the art object from the catalyst to its circulation, feels wholly different from the protest of the funding apparatus that Berger, who was happy to win the award and happier still to share the prize, makes two decades prior; an argument David Lodge would take up in another awards night speech against perceived corporatism at the Booker’s twentieth anniversary prize. Roy’s is an affirmation of fiction’s ability to speak differently than the cultural systems that sweep up novels as evidence of a teleology of societal progress—and with speech that rejects and disputes the terms upon which a particular novel’s success rests. This cuts to the quick of what might be the distilled nature of the Booker’s ideology—the relevance of British literature in an age of globalization in which a singular national literature is rendered less and less relevant.

In an interview with Tim Lewis of The Guardian, Roy spoke of her second, unexpected novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2018), as a response of sorts to the Hindu Nationalism of Narendra Modi.52 “So more than ever,” Roy declares, “the point of the writer is to be unpopular. The point of the writer is to say: ‘I denounce you even if I’m not in the majority.’”53 While unpopularity is not necessarily antithetical to literary prizing (see the eternally unpopular Jonathan Franzen), it raises the question of whether or not the winning novels can stand apart from what the Booker seeks to promote in its aesthetic vision of the novel in English. Roy, who had pointedly (though temporarily, as it would turn out) abandoned novel-writing after her lauded debut, and who made it clear that fiction was not capable of making radical social change, was an awkward symbol for the Booker: an anticolonial and an antinovel writer and activist. However, any surprise for the prize jury about Roy’s discomfort with the fame associated with the Booker would have been belied by politics of The God of Small Things.

The God of Small Things is, in part, a beautiful and traumatic unsettling of the Anglophilia still systematically dominating education and culture in the southern India of the novel. Nowhere in the novel is this clearer than when the child character of Sophie Mol, reared abroad in England, drowns in a river, haunting the twins, Estha and Rahel, who are the center of the narrative in Kerala. The death of their enigmatic, part-English cousin leaves the twins to confront their status in a postcolonial India still grappling with its perceived indebtedness to English culture. “They were a family of Anglophiles. Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footsteps had been swept away.”54 Read in the context of the Booker’s influence on Commonwealth literature, this sorrowful moment of reflection feels increasingly like a condemnation of the demands for mimicry of an English culture incapable of recognizing its own proper history. If Roy herself stands apart from the project of the Booker, her debut novel feels likewise engaged with perhaps the key question at the heart of post-imperial British fiction: Where does postcolonial history live in the life of an increasingly global literary prize? And does it live on only in English?

Aamir Mufti makes the provocative and yet entirely intuitive claim that academic work on world literature obscures the fundamental problem with the field itself: “hidden inside world literature is the dominance of globalized English.”55 Joshua Mostafa, reading Mufti, distills it as a contradiction between needing difference to qualify as the “world” of world literature, while depending on the elision of that difference: “heterogeneity is only permitted within a framework of standardisation,‘the same manner of being different’. And not all literary languages are of equal weight in the global traffic of culture.”56 Like Mufti, it is clear that Roy wants to engage with the imposition of English on the valuation of literary merit. In this scene of forced English lessons for the children in The God of Small Things, Roy all but announces it: “She made them write lines—‘impositions’ she called them—I will always speak in English, I will always speak in English. . . . She had made them practice an English car song for the way back.”57 Throughout the novel, that linguistic hegemony riles the surface of the narrative as the twins take in a “talkie” of The Sound of Music, a film whose libretto has been drilled into them as an archetypal text of “proper” behavior. The novel speaks to this dissonance directly and with echoes of the Booker’s own underlying discomfort: “‘Chacko said that going to see The Sound of Music was an extended exercise in Anglophilia. Ammu said, ‘Oh come on, the whole world goes to see The Sound of Music. It’s a World Hit.’”58 The appeal of taking in a “world hit” runs up against the implicit consent to English as the global language of influence.

What follows in the novel is a cruel pastiche of rehearsed choruses of each major song as the family watches the musical in the theater, mixed with a scene of sexual abuse of young Estha by the man working the orange and lemon soda fountain in the lobby of the theater. With Estha forced to return to watch the remainder of the film following his abuse, he can only process the exercise in Anglophilia as a commentary on his having been sullied: “Oh Baron von Trapp, Baron von Trapp, could you love the little fellow with the orange in the smelly auditorium? He’s just held the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s soo-soo in his hand, but could you love him still?”59

In a radically different scene of abuse in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999), the protagonist David Lurie faces the impending sexual violence against his daughter, and his own physical pummeling by those same rapists with an internal semicomic, fully racist monologue on the value of colonial languages:

He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but French and Italian will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron.60

The purposefully cartoonish use of racist stereotypes deployed by missionaries and early colonials to describe their experiences in southern Africa is meant to be painfully tongue-in-cheek, and to complicate Lurie’s status as a victim of this particular heinous crime, but it is also very much a critique of the continued indebtedness of postcolonial nations to European languages. South Africa with its “own lingos” is not a place over which David Lurie can lord his linguistic dominance. The lacuna in his litany of languages that will not help forestay his fate is, of course, the language in which he speaks, and in which the narrative itself appears, English. The novel’s relationship to its own protagonist is not so subtly antagonistic, and much of the plotted work of the novel is in service of undoing David’s imprimatur to narrating this story, or really any story of South Africa. And that deliberate dismissal of his narrative perspective is perforce a dismissal of English as a language of imperialism. Although Disgrace certainly ticks off the tacit rubric for Booker winners (remembering historical trauma, discomfort with the constitution of the postcolonial nation-state, engaging the legacy of a colonial past), its many refusals of English as the language appropriate to the story of post-apartheid South Africa reveals how the Booker is in dialogue with its own canon on the viability of an Anglophone-centric prize for global literatures.

Although it would be possible to draw countless further examples of novels at odds with themselves on the value to the postcolony of writing in English, it is worth noting one particularly odd and evocative instance of this general discomfort with the lingua franca of the Booker. Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning debut novel The White Tiger begins as an unlikely, perhaps impossible correspondence between an Indian driver for a wealthy American-educated family and the premier of China, Wen Jiabao. Balram Halwai’s letter to the premier begins with a disclaimer about the necessity and impossibility of communicating in English. He starts his letter to the premier with a paradox that will nicely sum up the power and impotence of the Booker prize as a mediator of global literary success: “Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can only be said in English.”61 The choice to write the story of his life of poverty and status-climbing at any cost in contemporary India and the ultimate murder of his employer in a language not his own might seem a preposterous conceit. And yet, by making an agreed upon fraud of communication, or at least a mutual pact of misunderstanding, the novel creates literary space for the kinds of questions raised by the Booker’s role in creating a nexus for valuing postcolonial literature and culture. The politics of postcolonial writing in English are fraught with painful ambiguities. Engaging the real violence perpetrated on the bodies of slaves in generating the wealth for the original seed money of Booker purse must be part of the dialogue on how a clearly influential literary prize continues to look outside the United Kingdom for examples of literary excellence. Since neither Balram nor the premier of China claims English as their own, the choice to write the letter is the choice to be misunderstood, to make visible the reciprocal losses inherent to one form of global communication that relies entirely on English. Any examination of the effect of the Booker prize on the evolution of British literature should take this bargain into account, understanding that novels that foreground the mistranslation of postcolonial life into English may have the most to say about the value of literary prizes in English.

Discussion of the Literature

A literature review of the Booker Prize presents a fundamental problem: How the prize gets discussed is often filtered through the critic’s subjective understanding of literary value. The question whether or not particular novels deserve to have won the prize becomes a litmus test for how the critic reads the history of the Booker writ large. A great deal of the literature on the Booker is either adulation or a screed against the very act of prizing. Richard Todd62 manages the difficult task of offering a complete history (up to the late 20th century) of the Booker, while balancing a clear admiration for the prize’s international reach with a critical analysis of its controversies and failures. Todd’s history remains the one of best completist works on the Booker.

Studies of the Booker in the early 21st century have attended with more focus to the postcolonial questions at the heart of the prize’s continued geographic expansion. Graham Huggan grapples with the Booker’s tacit imperial desires, with a particular emphasis on how the publishing industry has developed a hunger for novels perceived as exotic but offered with a form and content predigested for an Anglo-American audience.63 Huggan writes with what approaches fury at the commonplace ways in which the Booker and other valuable literary prizes feed into the search for commodifiable literary exotics by Western publishing giants. Sarah Brouillette develops upon Huggan in considering the ways in which postcolonial authors deliberately construct their own literary identities, sometimes in direct contraction to the publishing industry’s interest in so-called marketable otherness.64 In Literature and the Creative Economy, Brouillette expands on this sociological methodology when examining the function of the creative economy in shaping how writers view their worth to the neoliberal economy.65

In critical work that analyzes literary prizes more generally, James English works through the modern history of prizes and their increasing influence on questions of literary value.66 English reflects on the cultural capital of prizes like the Booker while offering a sustained reading of the modern literary prize as an arm of the larger globalization of culture that begin in the late 20th century. Stevie Marsden’s “Literary Prize Culture” explores the industry of taste making across a broad range of literary prizes, while making clear the subjective processes behind the assigning of value to particular texts.

Stephen M. Levin connects the economic networks responsible for the capital assigned to prizes, with the emergence of the cosmopolitan global novel, a form uniquely suited to the Booker’s geographic expansion into the Commonwealth countries.67 The global novel as a putative genre could not exist without the work of David Damrosch on a new theory of world literature. David Damrosh, in “Going Global” and the “World Enough and Time” tracts the ways in which texts move beyond their linguistic, cultural, and geographical origins to find new lives in translated forms.68 This theory of world literature inspires work on the global novel by Berthold Schoene, who looks at contemporary British literature that defines this subcategory of the global novel.69 Rebecca Walkowitz argues that contemporary writers are uniquely aware of the translatability of their work, and that they imagine future lives for their literary work in other languages.70

Finally, the question of English as the lingua franca of the Booker Prize, even in its international offshoot, is a microcosm for the critical debates around the primacy of English as the language of world literature and the global novel. Aamir Mufti provocatively argues that the purported cosmopolitanism of the global novel belies the cultural and linguistic hegemony of English, which precisely limits the value of world literature as a field of study.71

Further Reading

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
  • Brouillette, Sarah. Literature and the Creative Economy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.
  • Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Damrosch, David. How to Read World Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Damrosch, David. Comparing the Literatures: Literary Studies in a Global Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.
  • English, James. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Graham, Huggan. The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Kirsch, Adam. The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century. Columbia, SC: Global Reports, 2017.
  • Mufti, Aamir. Forget English!: Orientalisms and World Literatures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Schoene, Berthold. The Cosmopolitan Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
  • Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.
  • Walkowitz, Rebecca. Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.


  • 1. The Commonwealth of Nations, or simply The Commonwealth, is a group of fifty-four nations connected by language and tradition. It is, notably, a designation largely responsible for connecting former British colonies to the present-day United Kingdom via trade and culture.

  • 2. Sarah Brouillette, Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 19.

  • 3. Pierre Bourdieu used the term “symbolic capital” to refer to resources available to an individual or nation on the basis of honor, prestige, or recognition, and serves as value that one holds within a culture. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

  • 4. Literary prizes can also have major economic impacts on publishers who can, depending on the reputation and media coverage of the prize, see a major increase in book sales. Figures released in 2012 of the sales of Man Booker Prize winning books indicate that the prize can lead to an increase of up to 2,000 percent in books sales following the announcement of the prize winner. A similar effect in sales has been recognized following the announcement of the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a literary prize founded in honor of literary journalist Doris Giller in 1994 which recognizes “excellence in Canadian fiction” in both “long format or short stories.” It has been noted that the average increase in sales of books that win the Scotiabank Giller Prize (compared to the week preceding the winner announcement) is 543 percent.

  • 5. 3 Graham Huggan, The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (London: Routledge, 2005), 118.

  • 6. The Booker Prize has gone by several names attached to corporate sponsors, most prominently, the Man Booker Prize, but to avoid confusion this article uses the current name the Booker Prize, or the Booker, when abbreviating.

  • 7. See Beth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

  • 8. Stephen M. Levin, “Is There a Booker Aesthetic? Iterations of the Global Novel,” Critique 55 (2014): 477–493, 477.

  • 9. John Berger, “John Berger and the Booker Prize,” Open Democracy, July 25, 2017.

  • 10. James English, “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History 33, no. 33 (Winter 2002): 114.

  • 11. English, “Winning the Culture Game,” 205; and Levin, “Is There a Booker Aesthetic?,” 480.

  • 12. John Berger, “‘I have to turn this prize against itself’—John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972,” Verso Press Blog, November 4, 2016.

  • 13. At the twentieth anniversary celebration for the Booker in 1989, David Lodge would expand the idea of the Booker’s colonial history to “industrial capital,” and to the Thatcherite ideology of “expansion and deregulation of high finance” at all costs. David Lodge, “Speech at the Banquet for the Twentieth Anniversary of the Booker Prize,” TS Booker Prize Papers (Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, 1989).

  • 14. As David Sedaris, writing for The New Yorker magazine, suggests of the shift in the Dutch tradition of their Father Christmas arriving each Noel accompanied by Black “friends,” a radical departure from the hundreds of years history of Black “slaves” by his side: “I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.” David Sedaris, “Six to Eight Black Men,” Esquire Magazine, December 1, 2002.

  • 15. James F. English, “The Literary Prize Phenomenon in Context,” in A Companion to the British and Irish Novel, 1945–2000, ed. Brian Shaffer (London: Blackwell, 2004), 160.

  • 16. James English writes of the Booker, it is “the most successful of all the hundreds of literary prizes,” particularly in its creation of a highbrow category of anglophone literatures. James English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2005), 197.

  • 17. Man Booker Announcement of Shortlist 2013, September 10, 2013.

  • 18. In Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 70.

  • 19. See Huggan, Post-Colonial Exotic, 107; and Todd, Consuming Fictions, 61. Recognizing the enormous windfall from increased sales for winners of the prize, the actual purse is a mere token.

  • 20. Todd, Consuming Fictions, 78. For Todd, this shift was a relatively unvarnished triumph, with the realization that English is a shared language and “cultural fund” (a realization not, we would assume, for colonial subjects who had been crafting new forms of English since the arrival of empire) “had to occur if the English novel was to transform itself from the moribund state it had entered by the mid 1960s and arise phoenix-like from its own ashes as…part of a new global literature.” Todd, Consuming Fictions, 83.

  • 21. Huggan, Post-Colonial Exotic, 111.

  • 22. Todd, Consuming Fictions, 66–67.

  • 23. The Balfour declaration at the Imperial Conference of 1926 stated that “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” “Founding Documents,” Documenting a Democracy.

  • 24. The irony of Rushdie’s financial dependency on the Booker’s use of the Commonwealth as the mode d’emploi for its prize is not lost on this author.

  • 25. Richard Gott, “Novel Way to Run a Lottery,” The Guardian, September 5, 1994.

  • 26. Paula Morris, “The ‘Leftovers of Empire’: Commonwealth Writers and the Booker Prize,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 56, no. 2 (2020): 261–270 (emphasis added).

  • 27. Sian Cain, “Publishers Call on Man Booker Prize to Drop American Authors,” The Guardian.

  • 28. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (New York: Penguin Books, 2014); Paul Beatty, The Sellout (New York: Picador, 2015); and George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel (New York: Random House, 2016).

  • 29. Martin Doyle, “Booker Prize 2020,” The Irish Times, July, 28, 2020.

  • 30. Todd, Consuming Fictions, 1.

  • 31. See Graham Huggan and Sarah Brouillette for the most pointed of these critiques of exoticism in the Booker’s ideology of prizing postcolonial literatures in Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic and Sarah Brouillette, Postcolonial Writers and the Global Literary Marketplace (London: Palgrave, 2007).

  • 32. In Huggan, Postcolonial Exotic, 106.

  • 33. Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 245.

  • 34. Huggan, Postcolonial Exotic, 117.

  • 35. For a definitive look at the Rhodes Scholarship and its colonial inheritance, see Philip Ziegler, Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarships (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

  • 36. It was a “rare” dual prize in the sense that such split winners were expressly forbidden by the Booker in 1993: “While the prize has been jointly awarded twice previously, the rules changed in 1993 limiting the award to one author. The judges defied those rules, saying they could not agree on a winner between the two books, which were on a shortlist of six.” Marie-Louise Gumuchian, “Rule-Breaking Booker Judges Honor Atwood, Evaristo With Rare Double Prize,” US News and World Report, October 14, 2019.

  • 37. Rushdie’s public antics at the Booker reception after his novel Shame lost out to The Life and Times of Michael K is the stuff of Booker legend. “The story goes that Rushdie thumped the table in rage at losing, declaring to anyone within earshot that [LTMK], which had beaten him to the line, was a ‘shitty winner’.” Huggan, Postcolonial Exotic, 109.

  • 38. BBC Radio 4, “Barneys, Books and Bust-Ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize.”

  • 39. “Unlike the other candidates on the shortlist, Mantel’s novel (the second in the trilogy) already enjoyed the backing of a large multinational publisher and brisk sales.” Levin, “Is There a Booker Aesthetic?,” 481.

  • 40. “The Golden Man Booker” is one of a handful of special Booker prizes. The Golden Booker was awarded in 2018 as the fiftieth-year anniversary of the prize. One book from each decade was selected by a panel of judges: Naipaul’s In a Free State (the 1971 winner), Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987), Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. The English Patient was the winner by popular vote.

  • 41. In 2011, the Man Booker trust organized a special award to be given to Beryl Bainbridge in honor of her many shortlisted novels over the history of the Booker. The public was tasked with voting on which of her five shortlisted novels should win this special Booker. Master Georgie, which had originally been shortlisted in 1998, was selected by popular vote.

  • 42. Daniel Hahn, “The Vegetarian by Han Kang Review—An Extraordinary Story Of Family Fallout,” The Guardian, January 24, 2015.

  • 43. The Editors, “World Lite: What Is Global Literature,” N+1, 17 (Fall 2013).

  • 44. Booker Prize Foundation, “Dame Stella Rimington’s Speech From the Man Booker Prize 2011,” October 16, 2011.

  • 45. Catherine Bennett, “The Man Booker Judges Seem to Find Reading a Bit Hard,” The Guardian, September 11, 2011.

  • 46. Alison Flood, “Booker Prize 2012: New Guard Edges Out Old in Wide-Ranging Longlist,” The Guardian, September 16, 2013.

  • 47. Matthew Eatough, “‘Are They Going to Say This Is Fantasy?’: Kazuo Ishiguro, Untimely Genres, and the Making of Literary Prestige,” “Kazuo Ishiguro After the Nobel,” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, forthcoming special issue, 2021. Cited with permission of the author.

  • 48. Todd, Consuming Fictions, 83.

    A highly critical analysis of the Booker’s influence on global literatures in N+1 points to the more meaningful geopolitical developments outside the realm of British “taste” as evidence of where a reading audience for the global arose from:

    The geographic broadening of literary sensibility has taken place alongside the beginnings of a remarkable economic catch-up of poorer with richer countries. In 2013, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, more economic growth will take place in “developing” than in developed countries. The Indian market for Anglophone literature will soon be bigger than the British one. Chinese writers have won two of the last thirteen Nobel Prizes. A South American is now pope, for the first time since Columbus brought Christianity to the New World.

    Editors, “World Lite.”

  • 49. Neil Lazarus, The Postcolonial Unconscious (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 22.

  • 50. Levin, “Is There a Booker Aesthetic?,” 487.

  • 51. Interview with Arundhati Roy, “Like Sculpting Smoke: Arundhati Roy on Fame, Writing and India,” Kyoto Journal, November 5 (2011): 2017 (emphasis added).

  • 52. The irony was completed with the longlisting of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for the Booker in 2018.

  • 53. Tim Lewis, “The Point of the Writers Is to Be Unpopular,” The Guardian, June 17, 2018.

  • 54. Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (New York: Random House, 2008), 51.

  • 55. Aamir Mufti, Forget English!: Orientalisms and World Literatures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 3.

  • 56. Joshua Mostafa, “The View from Nowhere: Forget English! & Born Translated,” Sydney Review of Books, March 3, 2016.

  • 57. Roy, God of Small Things, 36.

  • 58. Roy, God of Small Things, 27 (emphasis added).

  • 59. Roy, God of Small Things, 101.

  • 60. J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 95.

  • 61. Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 1.

  • 62. Todd, Consuming Fictions.

  • 63. Huggan, Post-Colonial Exotic.

  • 64. Brouillette, Postcolonial Writers.

  • 65. Brouillette, Literature and Creative Economy.

  • 66. English, Economy of Prestige.

  • 67. Levin, “Is There a Booker Aesthetic?”

  • 68. David Damrosh, How to Read World Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); David Damrosh, What Is World Literature? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

  • 69. Berthold Schoene, The Cosmopolitan Novel (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

  • 70. Rebecca Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

  • 71. Mufti, Forget English!