I checked Twitter this morning to find out that some white, male, British writer who won the Booker Prize in 2005 has decided to use his one wild and precious life to complain that he wouldn’t be able to win it today, as a straight white male, because of a “‘woke’ movement” that he “despises.”
Lots of people wiser and better than I have already pointed out the absurdity of this claim. But whenever I hear people make claims about awards and who gets them, I am annoyed enough to dig into the numbers. And in this case, those numbers highlight very clearly what Mr. Banville is really saying.
Since Banville won the Booker in 2005, the Booker Prize has been awarded 15 times to 15 people (twice to the same writer, Hilary Mantel, and once to two writers, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo). Eight of those winners were men, while seven were women, which seems like a pretty fair gender split. But wait! Of the eight male winners, three were non-white! Look out; that leaves only five white male winners in the last fifteen years.
In fact, a white male won just this year, 2020, which should put to bed any suggestion that white men are unfairly disadvantaged — except that Douglas Stuart, the 2020 winner, is gay. Which is obviously why Banville has to add “straight” to his own identifier, so as to define his category in the Hardship Sweepstakes as narrowly as possible.
Put like that, the ridiculousness of his claim becomes a little more apparent. It’s not that men are excluded (8/15 winners are male), or that white people are excluded (10/15 winners), or that straight people are excluded (I’m not going to take the time to look through 15 people’s bios to find out who they’re sleeping with but I confidently say a majority of those 15 winners are flagrantly heterosexual, openly flaunting their relationships with people of the opposite sex).
Banville’s fine whine is perhaps occasioned especially by the fact that the shortlists of the last two years’ Booker Prizes do not contain any books by straight, white men. They contain books by men, books by white writers, books by straight writers aplenty — but none that fit into the narrow niche Banville has carved out to define himself. Prior to 2018, straight white men appear on pretty much every year’s shortlist, and the last time one of that embattled minority won the award was as recently as 2017, when George Saunders (deservedly; I loved the book) won for Lincoln in the Bardo.
Of course the shortlists look a little different from how they looked when the prize was new in the 1970s, when almost all the nominees were white (though still fairly evenly divided between men and women; men, however, tended win more often in those early years). The most controversial Booker decision in recent years was not the inclusion of more non-white writers, or more women, or more LGBTQ writers, but the inclusion of Americans in 2014, which still raises some hackles (two Americans have actually won since 2014, both men, but presumably only one of those, Saunders, would count in Banfield’s Hardship Sweepstakes since the other is Black).
The odds of any book I’ve written being shortlisted for a Booker Prize are approximately none at all, ever, but if I wanted to feel hard done by I could point out that in that same 15-year period we’re looking at, only one Canadian has ever won the prize, and she had to share it with (gasp!) a Black British woman! And did you know that no woman from Newfoundland over the age of 50 who owns a rescue dog has ever won the Booker Prize??!?! The universe is stacked against me!
The fact is that for a very long time, women and people of colour and LGBTQ people and disabled people and any other marginalized group have been told, “It’s not that you’re being discriminated against. We just happened to hire/give the prize to/promote the straight, able-bodied white male because his credentials are better. His research was more original. He wrote a better book. There’s no discrimination here; the system is entirely merit-based.”
Now, when the kinds of people who publish books, and the kinds of people who give out big literary awards, are making a conscious effort to include, promote, and listen to more diverse voices — guess what? White people are still doing fine. Men are doing great. Straight people are crushing it! But if you want to narrowly define yourself by a specific Venn diagram of identifiers — the straight, white, male — then you might start to feel a little … marginalized.
Of all the wise sayings that float around the internet looking for attribution, one of the truest, to me, is the (probably) anonymous statement that “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The fact is that people in Mr. Banville’s narrow, self-defined Venn diagram of identity — male, white, heterosexual — have been handed participation trophies just for showing up for several hundred years now. Many of them have believed the lie that these prizes were based on their own inherent merit, not on a system that silenced other voices and privileged those of the straight white male.
A lot of straight white men have grown up as a protected class, assuming that the jobs and the prizes were theirs by right. A lifetime of benefiting from that system without interrogating it could, indeed, lead one to think that that formerly protected class, minus just a few of its traditional protections, has now become an endangered species.
But don’t worry, Mr. Banville. It’s really all based on merit. Look at George Saunders – a credit to his race and sex! Someday maybe you’ll write a book as good as Lincoln in the Bardo, and win the Booker Prize. Again.