Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Sian Cain

Booker prize: it has been six years since an Australian was nominated. What gives?

Richard Flanagan standing and holding a copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North in front of him
Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Booker for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Since then, only JM Coetzee has made the shortlist. Photograph: Richard Gray/Alamy

About three years ago I found myself inside Buckingham Palace, attending a party to celebrate 50 years of the Booker prize. Championing literature was the Queen Consort, Camilla’s thing (the royals all have a thing), which meant she had kindly offered to host us: a few literary critics among a misfit crew of namey authors who had won the Booker, or perhaps should have.

It was an odd night out: even the most famous faces looked uneasy with all the pomp, sipping wine in that gilded room. Just before I left to drink a pint somewhere normal, I spotted a fellow Australian: two-time winner Peter Carey who, clearly doing a Harold Holt, had seen my group of young women writers on his way out. “Night ladies!” he boomed. “Hope you enjoy … the rest of whatever the hell this was!

Whatever the hell this very British prize is to Australian literature is becoming an increasingly puzzling question. This year was the sixth year in a row that no Australians were nominated for the Booker, since South African-Australian JM Coetzee was longlisted in 2016. If none are nominated next year, it will be longest gap between Australian nominations since the prize began in 1969.

Before this dry spell, one or two Australians made the longlist every three years on average. This may not seem very often, but every single nomination loomed large for a country that didn’t have many opportunities to show its literature to the world. First there was Thomas Keneally (nominated 1972, 1975, 1979 and winning in 1982); Carey (nominated in 1985 and 2010, winning in 1988 and 2001); and Coetzee (who won twice before he became an Australian citizen, and was nominated afterwards in 2016). David Malouf was nominated (1993), as was Tim Winton (1995 and 2002), Kate Grenville (2006), Steve Toltz (2008) and Christos Tsiolkas (2010). Australia-born DBC Pierre won in 2003, Indian-Australian Aravind Adiga won in 2008, then Richard Flanagan in 2014. (No Australian woman has ever won the Booker.)

A composite image of Aravind Adiga, DBC Pierre and Peter Carey. Each man is wearing a suit an holding a copy of their book at their chests
Aravind Adiga, DBC Pierre and Peter Carey. Composite: Getty/ Alamy

“Unmistakeably, the Booker still holds power here,” Michael Williams, a former publisher and editor of the Monthly, says. “The opportunities for making a living as a writer are so tenuous and liminal at best that anything that draws attention to a book is huge.”

“Prizes are both a subjective bane and utterly necessary to create growth and interest,” adds Beejay Silcox, a literary critic and author. “The Booker has an incredible cultural value in that sense – as much as it is often wrong.”

What does the Booker prize mean to Australia?

Some may argue that a book prize on the other side of the world – and one that is dominated by a certain English and, increasingly, American view of what quality literature is shouldn’t matter much to Australia, which has its own literary prizes.

But when a prize like the Booker can still decide what people around the world read, and what is reviewed and translated and talked about on radio and stocked in bookshops and discussed at festivals, then in reality, being nominated does actually mean a great deal – both to authors and, more broadly, their country’s literary landscape.

Being nominated alone is “an act of instant canonisation” amid all the books out each year, Williams says. “A longlist is an expression of the sheer range and audacity of what is happening in literature at that time … It is easy to be disdainful to the mechanism, but there is just nothing like the Booker.”

“Australia has some exceptional writing at the moment,” Silcox says, listing Amanda Lohrey’s novel The Labyrinth, Michael Winkler’s Grimmish, Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile and Diana Reid’s Love and Virtue as titles worth recognition internationally. “But there’s just not a lot of interest overseas. I get the sense they do want to read about Australia, but they already have a picture in their head of what that looks like.”

Why are Australians no longer getting nominated?

The Booker was once confined to authors from the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe – an empire rule that looked increasingly silly, leading to a change in 2014 to allow all novels written in English, so long as they were published by UK and Irish publishing houses.

Shehan Karunatilaka is standing in front of a Booker Prize branded wall holding his book in one hand and a trophy in the other hand. He is wearing a black suit and tie with a white shirt
Shehan Karunatilaka won the 2022 Booker prize for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Photograph: Tim Ireland/EPA

Much fuss was made about the decision to let Americans in (including by Carey), but it is undeniable that since then, they have made up roughly a quarter of every longlist and won three times; at this year’s prize, which was won by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka on Monday, six of the 13 nominees were American. These authors are most often living, working and published in the US – seemingly an easier path into the UK than the long road from Australia.

It is not the change to let Americans in, but the requirement that a book must be published in the UK or Ireland, that many in Australian publishing say is counting against Australian authors. To understand why, you need to understand what is called the Commonwealth publishing model.

When a book is sold to a publisher, what is being sold is the right to publish that book in certain territories. One of those territories is the Commonwealth, which generally includes the right to publish a book in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries.

However, if an Australian book is published in Australia, some UK publishers will refuse to buy the remaining Commonwealth rights because they have missed out on a chunk of sales – to English-language readers in Australia. Crucially, North America is treated as a distinct territory by UK publishers, who can sell US books into the Commonwealth – meaning being published in the US doesn’t count against a US author in the same way it can for an Australian one in Australia.

“From a rights perspective, it’s tough to sell Australian books in the UK, which is surprising for a lot of Australian authors, who would think it’s the natural sister market,” says Rebecca Slater, a former rights professional. “Australian books are much more likely to get a deal in the US, Germany, France or even Scandinavia than the UK. It’s strange.

“If a book has done really well in Australia, that can be a reason for UK publishers to pick it up. But they can also say, ‘Well, that’s a huge slice of our market and another publisher has made a profit out of it. What’s left for us?’”

This is not to say Australian books aren’t being sold overseas. But publishing figures report that it is outback noir and outback romance novels that are currently booming – not traditionally contenders for the Booker.

“The kinds of stories that take place in what are seen as quintessentially Australian spaces – the outback, rural places – do better overseas than, say, a literary novel set in Melbourne,” Slater says. “That’s a tough sell. We have an expectation that if you’re writing an urban literary novel, it’ll be set in London or New York. I think British and US publishers go, ‘We can do a story about a woman exploring her sexuality that is set in streets that people know, rather than Sydney.’”

What makes an ‘Australian’ book?

Silcox writes about the breadth and variety of modern Australian writing for international publications including the Guardian and the New York Times. She recalls going into British bookshop Daunt Books and finding “their Australian selection was Carey, Winton, and then not a lot beyond that”. When she studied in the US, not a single person in her creative writing course had ever read an Australian book.

“The overseas understanding of what Australia is still that outback, rural, desolate, Crocodile Hunter version of who we are,” she says. “And I don’t think we’ve managed to shift that particular expectation.”

Perhaps it’s telling then that, overwhelmingly, the Australian novels that have won the Booker prize are markedly Australian: big gutsy tales about colonisation, convicts and settlers, and war. Silcox cites Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the 2001 Booker winner, as an example of “a brilliant book, but one that plays into empire”.

“More often it is Australian writing that engages in the project of empire that gets chosen [for the Booker],” she says. “And we tell ourselves these stories too, about the big, bad bush and pure white girls being swallowed in it, about what we did in world wars. We’re still telling those stories and they’re the ones that are selling big – not just overseas, but to ourselves.”

There is no great conspiracy against Australian authors to explain their absence on the Booker. It could be that Australian literary novels just aren’t being published, or pushed, as they once were in the UK. Maybe that is because Australian literature has broadly moved on from explaining itself to the world as a kind of phenomenon. Or maybe it is because, in some corners of the world, we are perceived as a satellite of minor interest with no literature of note, save scores of crime novels set in the scary outback, and Gerald Murnane, who lives in the scary outback (and who Americans seem endlessly fascinated by).

Silcox recalls asking her American classmates to read an Australian novel together; after all, she reasoned, she had spent years reading their literature. “Of course they picked [Tim Winton’s] Cloudstreet,” she says. “And everyone complained about the vernacular, and how it was unreasonable that there wasn’t a glossary. It was really interesting – Australia was just too different to get your head around.”

  • This article was amended on 18 October 2022 to add in Steve Toltz’s nomination in 2008.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.