When she announced the 2020 Booker Prize longlist recently, the chair of the judging panel, Margaret Busby, noted that the selected books “represent a moment of cultural change”. And while one could be tempted to see her words as the sort of hyperbole that often accompanies these announcements, the selection of 13 novels (the “Booker dozen”) for 2020 is – in some ways – one of the more interesting and diverse we’ve seen in a long time.
Two key aspects of the list made for the most discussion for literary commentators and social media. First, the inclusion of Hilary Mantel’s latest book, and the final in her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Both the two previous books in the trilogy – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – won the Booker Prize, in 2009 and 2012 respectively. If Mantel was to win the 2020 Booker Prize for The Mirror & the Light she would be the first author to ever win three Bookers.
Second, nearly half of the longlist is made up of debut novels, which even the literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Gaby Wood, has admitted is an “unusually high proportion”. This is certainly something the Booker Prize and its judging panel should be commended for.
Like all other creative industries, publishing has been hit hard by the worldwide pandemic. From the cancellation of major events, including the London Book Fair in March, and the closing of bookshops, to the postponement of major releases, including Ruth Jones’ second novel Us Three, the 2020 publishing calendar has been turned upside down.
The celebration of debut novels in the Booker Prize longlist, then, is particularly fortuitous, since many debut writers have lost the opportunity to go through the usual new book tours, literary event circuits and bookshop signings.
Spreading the love?
Independent publishers in particular have been hit hard in 2020. A survey conducted in May by the Bookseller and Spread the Word found that 85% of the publishers surveyed saw their sales drop by over a half since the UK’s national lockdown in March. So the 2020 Booker Prize longlist might also be applauded for its celebration of titles from indie presses.
Six of the 13 longlisted books come from four (admittedly well-known and larger) independent presses: Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s, This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber), Colum McCann’s Apeirogon and Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury), Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King (Canongate) and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (Daunt Books Publishing).
The seven other books are from Pan Macmillan, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette. I’ve written before about how the Booker’s terms of submission may sway the prize in favour of big publishers, but this year there is at least some semblance of balance.
I’ve also written before about how the Booker Prize has historically failed to award writers of colour – an issue which was highlighted once again in 2019 when Bernardine Evaristo became the first black British woman to win the award.
Evaristo’s win was considered by many to be a long overdue recognition for a widely acclaimed writer, but the fact that Evaristo had to share the award with Margaret Atwood, a white, former Booker Prize winner, did not go unnoticed. It is perhaps promising, then, that nine of the new 13-strong Booker longlist are women – and more than half are writers of colour.
The overwhelming majority are US-based or born. This is significant since American writers have only been eligible for the prize since 2014 – and the change in rules that led to the inclusion of American writers was criticised by a number of authors and publishers at the time. Since the rule change, only two American authors have won the award: Paul Beatty in 2016 and George Saunders in 2017. The prize is also now sponsored by the American-based charitable foundation Crankstart, founded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Moritz.
Finally, it is worth highlighting the kinds of themes and issues dealt with in the longlisted books. The books examine race, homosexuality, gender and gender identity, poverty, class (and in some cases, intersections of them all), homelessness and climate change.
The subjects foregrounded by many of the longlisted books, therefore, not only speak to current socio-political movements and conflict – most notably Black Lives Matter and the call for active anti-racism. But they also foreshadow the kinds of issues we will undoubtedly come up against (and, in some circumstances, already are) in a post-coronavirus world. In other words, more so than ever before, this longlist feels both born from, and representative of, the very particular moment in history in which we are in.
But only time will tell if this will be reflected in the final shortlist which will be announced on September 15, with the winner being announced in November. If Mantel were to be crowned the winner – receiving her third Booker Prize in just over a decade – it would arguably prove that yet again the Booker Prize acts only to reinforce, as opposed to disrupt as hoped, the systemic inequalities and imbalances of contemporary publishing culture.