The Booker longlist is ignorant and bigoted

The long list for the Booker prize has been announced today, and has dashed my hopes that following the victory of Interzone’s Chris Beckett in the National Short Award, The Booker would foil its many critics (myself included) and include some of the great works of speculative fiction published this year.

In previous years I have compared the Booker judges to the organising committee of a village fete. This year I think it would be fairer to ditch the metaphors and out them as the ethnicaly pure, upper middle class cartel they are. The only praise I can think to heap upon The Booker is that it is at least open in its utter class snobbery and borderline bigotry.

And lets be clear, the reason names such as China Mieville, Ian McDonald, Iain Banks, M John Harrison, Neil Gaiman, Jon Courtney Grimwood or any of the other superlative British authors of speculative fiction are excluded without consideration from The Booker, is nothing to do with quality of writing and everything to do with social discrimination. The Booker Prize and the literary fiction it rewards are the province of a small minded and ignorant cultural elite who are desperate to cling onto status and power. Speculative fiction is not just popular, but also rich with thought and ideas in a way that most literary fiction is sadly lacking. No wonder it is so often the target of insult and discrimination from those in the literary world who feel threatened by it.

Of course there is an argument that the literary fiction clique should be protected. Few people buy the books, and fewer read them. Like an endangered species, the lit.fic crowd need the protected reservations of  The Booker prize and newspaper review pages or they will go extinct. The irony is that if the ignorant and bigoted lovers of lit.fic would only open their eyes and educate themselves about the wider world of contemporary fiction – speculative fiction included – they might find a new energy and lease of life. Or they can continue to fade into absolute irrelevance.

I think we all know wwhich choice they will make.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

18 thoughts on “The Booker longlist is ignorant and bigoted

  1. Lit fic is a beast and a circle all of it’s own. The expectations are different. The purpose of the tales that spec fic and lit fic authors tell are usually different. There is usually more emphasis on peeling away layers of people and going being plot in lit fic and spec fic usually has more plot heavy elements.

    They feel different when reading them. None of the authors you’ve mentioned can be considered literary regardless of their quality writing style. Not even Gaiman who doesn’t delve deep enough into his characters to be considered literary.

    This isn’t a criticism but more two different perspectives.

    As I said in my tweet lots of winners have spec fic elements but won’t be considered purely spec fic.

    Different strokes for different folks.


  2. I would like to see an award like this acknowledge SFF or at least come out and state clearly and openly that it will never acknowledge them and the reasons for that. I am not aware of them doing that yet? n


  3. As it’s a prize open to UK publishers putting out books between a specified period, it would be interesting to see how many publishers of speculative fiction dangled a title or two under the noses of the judges. Apparently there were 132 books submitted for consideration, a few given a bye, and some called in. Did, say, Gollancz, think ‘why not? and have a punt, or did they stand back and think, they won’t like our books, without even giving it a try. If substandard thriller fare like ‘Child 44’ can make the Booker longlist, it’s not outside the realm of reason that a speculative title may slip in.


  4. You also have to ask why you need The Booker to accommodate your innocence of literary fiction. I don’t expect most of the novels on the longlist to be literary fiction according to my


  5. gav – I think maybe a decade ago you were right, but the boundaries between genres are so porous now that what lands a book on the Booker longlist or the Hugo shortlist is largely a matter of marketing and the background of the author.

    hagelrat – yes, if The Booker was to say it simply did the limited genre of litfic that would at least be hinest. But then it would not merit the attention it receives.

    stewart – I don’t really thing speculative titles need to slip in. I think The Booker would do itself credit by acknowledging them. Really, its to teh awards own benefit to throw its net wider and make itself more relevant.

    steve – I want the award to acknowledge the best writing, regardless of genre, rather than maintaining this pretense that the litfic genre is the best there is.


    1. Damien & Stewart — How are the longlist books really selected? Is it like Stewart suggests, that the publishers send their ‘suggestions’ to the judges? Because if so, it’s a little self-contained world, and speculative fiction won’t get in. Especially if so described _by_the_publisher_.

      Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union is Alternative History, but it wasn’t placed on the SF table in any bookshop I visit. Nope, it was grouped with Literary Fiction. SF fans gave it SF awards, but I think the Hugo is a bit more democratic than the Booker.

      Note that I am not saying this is how it works. I’m asking.


  6. Interesting piece. I’m not sure though that the best response to being the subject of disdain is to respond with disdain. Can one not like both speculative fiction and literary fiction? I certainly do, hell, I cover both on my blog happily enough (though I get different readers largely for each I notice).

    Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia was for me both good quality sf and literary fiction, it’s rare for something to be both but it’s not unknown. Often it’s just marketing, I’ve been discussing David Mitchell over at Hungry like the Woolf, a literary blog, and although he’s regarded as lit fit he’s plainly also sf. Chabon has been noted, a genre writer whose books are sometimes quite badly reviewed because they’re reviewed by lit fit reviewers unfamiliar with his sources – most reviews of Gentlemen of the Road I read didn’t even mention Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser or Elric as obvious source material.

    But so what? There’s a literary prize that the papers pay attention to, and some bloggers, and few other people. It excludes some fiction that it should perhaps consider, but which may well not even be submitted for all we know (did anyone submit Mieville’s latest for consideration?).

    Literary fiction gets the cultural kudos, that’s the way it is, science fiction will just have to put up then with being more popular and more relevant. It’s not the worst of fates.


  7. Gav,

    I’d challenge China Mieville not feeling literary, King Rat’s the only one I’ve read and it was flawed, but the prose in places was spectacular.

    M John Harrison’s Viriconium stuff holds up to most literary fiction pretty well.

    Iain Banks, well, I don’t think I have to try to hard to argue that he can be considered literary, so much of his output is after all literary fiction. The presence or absence of an initial doesn’t change his writing that much.

    That said, the point about plot is a fair one. For me, literary fiction is first about prose style, then about issues of character (being simple here), science fiction I see more as a genre of ideas, then about plot. The concerns generally are different, just not always.


  8. I don’t know. I not sure if the ethnically pure, upper middle class cartel are completely dismissive of speculative fiction. What they tend to do that really grates on me is read and enjoy science fiction, or more broadly speculative fiction, but refuse to admit that what they read is sci-fi. There have been past winners from the big literature awards that are without doubt sci-fi and many of the authors on the list of Booker’s past laureates, and I’m including the short list as well here, have dipped a toe into an enchanted lagoon in a galaxy far, far away and some have even dived right in.

    Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie picked up the award sometime in the 80s. The book is about India’s transition from British colonialism to independence or at least that’s the kind of thing that makes it onto the back cover. However, it’s a story about telepathic children. The lit crowd would not dream of accusing Rushdie of writing anything that could be considered sci-fi, instead it’s tagged as magical realism, which carries none of those ray gun and green women stigmas and so becomes perfectly acceptable.

    Kazuo Ishiguro picked up the prize for The Remains of the Day but he was also shortlisted for his book Never Let Me Go, I would say to anyone grab a copy, it is fantastic. The book was not just shortlisted for the high art, literature awards but was up for the Arthur C. Clark Award back in 2006. I think Air by Geoff Ryman ended up winning, though I can’t see why. Anyway the book is about a dystopian future where organs are harvested from human clones. To me that’s pure sci-fi yet you won’t find the book in the sci-fi/fantasy section of your local book shop because it deals with literary themes, or rather themes that are synonymous with literary fiction. When the filmmaker Michael Bay released The Island, a film covering the exact same subject – human clones and organ donors – it was not picked up by the ‘arty’ crowd because at its heart it was not exploring the themes of identity and the fragility of life that Ishiguro did but instead concentrated on blowing shit up.

    I think that’s how authors of speculative fiction make it onto literary award lists and also the fiction shelves, they are seen as paying closer attention to character. I’m not saying that sci-fi is about just plot and lit is only character orientated, that would be a grand over simplification and an untrue conclusion, but there certainly is an element of truth to that.

    I don’t believe that sci-fi is as overlooked as many people say. When it is credited it’s simply not credited as sci-fi. If the self-confessed science fiction writer Doris Lessing, author of the Canopus in Argos series, can win the daddy of all literary awards, the Noble Prize, then sci-fi isn’t doing that bad for its self.


  9. There’s nothing ethnically pure about the Booker, the judges may be all white this year but in terms of past nominees and winners it’s hardly been a whites only club.

    That aside, Dirty Baptist, I completely agree. SF is like treason, it never prospers because when it does nobody calls it sf.

    There’s tons of literary sf, people call it speculative fiction or magical realism (fantasy in other words) or other terms to divorce it from their flawed vision of what SF is – a vision of robots and ray guns (not that there’s anything wrong with either).

    But the problem isn’t in the books, it’s in a handful of critics who’re not as widely read as they could be. SF itself is in pretty good shape.

    Fantasy on the other hand…


    1. Max Cairnduff – you’ve called me out on the disdain front, and I have to agree. About a third of my reading is lit.fic, although I admit to sticking to the big names and not delving far into the genres subculture. I could write an equally disdainful piece on sci-fi fans who don’t read outside the genre.

      Dirty Baptist – You raise some good points. I’m actually less interested in genre boundaries than my passion on this subject suggests. I simply want to see the best books and writers recognised, and feel that The Booker does a very poor job in that regard. Reform it, get rid of it, replace it. Whatever. We need a better, more inclusive award.


  10. If the Guardian would run it, I’d be very interested in a blog piece by you on speculative/science fiction titles that in your view should have been on the list, or at least considered for the list.

    I know you name a few in a comment over there, but a proper discussion including why you think they merit it would be very cool.


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