Just how much do book prizes matter?

childressBook prizes play a monumental role in contemporary literary culture. Not only do they boost sales for winning and short-listed authors, they also help to define what is seen as “quality” in literature. If the effects of the prize are long lasting, book prize judges wield a tremendous amount of power over culture and literary trends.

To learn about the lasting impact of book prizes, Professor Clayton Childress has recently embarked on a new research project studying the effects of the Booker Prize. Funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, this project will compile and analyze a dataset of all books submitted to the Booker Prize between 1983-1996 and compare the characteristics of the books that were shortlisted with those that weren’t, and which books remained important in terms of their prestige among literary elites, and their popularity among regular readers.

The Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize), is arguably the most influential book prize in the English-speaking world. Though focused in the United Kingdom, it has always included books from former Commonwealth countries and has recently broadened its scope to the entire English-speaking world. The publicity that surrounds the Booker prize each year is also remarkable in comparison with other literary prizes.

Professor Childress has already learned a good deal about the Booker prize. His first publication from these data is forthcoming at Poetics and co-authored with Craig M. Rawlings (Northwestern) and Brian Moeran (University of Hong Kong). Together they look at factors that correlated with shortlisting and winning the prize. When compared to all submissions, they found that after first filtering out stories and authors based in England, the prize committees then favour male over female authors and stories. Then, when picking winners, the prize favours stories by and about men in the former colonies that have been published by high-status English publishers. In this way, Professor Childress and colleagues are able to provide some empirical evidence for what the humanities scholar Graham Huggan has argued is a fundamental contradiction of the Booker Prize as an attempt to reconcile “anti-colonial ideologies with neo-colonial market schemes.”