Case study: researching the Booker Prize

Over the past year, our most frequent researcher in the Special Collections reading room has been Fraser Smith, an MA Publishing student, who has been using the Booker Prize Archive for his dissertation research. He has kindly agreed to share his research and experience using the collection with us.

Fraser writes:


The Booker Archive: Assessing racism in the prize

Booker Prize 2019 logo from thebookerprizes.com
/resources/libraries

In 2019, the Booker Prize announced its first joint winners in three decades. Following her victory almost twenty years before with The Blind Assassin (2000), Margaret Atwood became only the fourth person to win for a second time with The Testaments (2019), a highly-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). She was joined by Bernadine Evaristo, who made history becoming the first ever Black woman to win the award with her novel, Girl, Woman, Other (2019). Evaristo also became the first Black British author to win since the award was created back in 1969.

The decision to flout the rules and award it to both authors – something which had occurred just twice in the prize’s history (in 1974 and 1992) – was treated with widespread criticism. Sana Goyal, the digital editor at Wasafiri magazine, said that the “judges’ rule-breaking antics took precedence over what could’ve been a truly record-smashing, history-making, trajectory-altering move for the prize”. While Sam Leith, a former Booker judge, described it as an “epic fail”.

Wider implications

Pushed by the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it has had far-reaching implications in the world of publishing. In that year, Evaristo wrote the foreword to a ground-breaking report, named Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, in which she said it was “another clarion call to an industry which, with all the apparent goodwill in the world hasn’t changed fast enough to become more inclusive.”  In collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London, Spread the Word, and The Bookseller, it assessed “the obstacles that writers of colour face in trade publishing”. They found that there was a “diversity deficit” where “despite a raft of diversity initiatives, [it] suggest[ed] systemic and institutionalised practices of implicit and explicit discrimination within the literary economy”

Those in the industry now had to look at themselves and ask whether they were doing enough to tackle the lack of diversity. Initiatives and awards were created to attract both professionals and writers from underrepresented backgrounds. From Penguin Random House’s The Scheme to the Jhalak Prize, the industry is going in the right direction.

But, as I argue, it is only by looking back that we can fully understand and tackle these issues. In my dissertation, I focus on where my research began: The Booker Prize. I assess its history, including its links to colonialism, and see how through its institutions it can and should do better. As the “leading literary award” it carries an authority in the media and more generally, is a representative of literature, and so should lead by example.

A selection of items from the Booker Prize Archive. Image from: brookes.ac.uk/library/collections/special-collections/publishing-and-literary-prizes/booker-prize-archive

The Booker Archive at Oxford Brookes Library

The Oxford Brookes Library, which houses the Booker Archive, has been an incredible and useful resource. Encompassing the administrative history from 1969 to today, it offers an unparalleled amount of information, including correspondence, publicity material, and minutes of meetings.

The staff there were helpful and friendly, ensuring that all my questions were answered. Even during a pandemic, where social distancing was a must and availability restricted, they were still accommodating and went out of their way to help.  

Final thoughts

I would definitely recommend using the archives at Brookes. From finding a signed postcard by Margaret Atwood to a letter by the Duchess of Cornwall, I found the material to be both interesting and illuminating. Even if you are unsure where to begin your research, it is a good place to start.

Also, I would like to thank Annabel and the rest of her team at the archives. They went out of their way to help, even during Covid. I do not think I could have found the information without their support. You can contact them if you’d like to know more.

— Fraser Smith, MA Publishing student at Oxford Brookes University

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