Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain has won the 52nd Booker Prize. The ceremony, normally a glitzy affair with long speeches, readings from shortlisted books and a lavish dinner, was held in a relatively empty Roundhouse Theatre.
The few in attendance included BBC Front Row’s John Wilson, the 2020 Booker Prize Chair of Judges Margaret Busby, last year’s winner Bernadine Evaristo and the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble. The shortlisted authors and guest speakers joined virtually, beamed into the ceremony from their homes.
Whether deliberately or not, this was one of the most politically charged Booker Prize shortlists and winner we’ve ever had. Not only did the ceremony include a video from former President Barack Obama, who wished the shortlisted authors luck and expounded on the importance of reading, but the shortlist and eventual winner also echo the most significant and complex challenges we have faced throughout 2020.
The entire shortlist speaks to our current cultural moment – covering themes such as climate change, existential anxiety, the challenges of familial care, racial micro-aggressions and class prejudice. The winner explores issues of childhood poverty, parental alcoholism and emotional neglect in 1980s Glasgow, issues which remain alarmingly relevant in 2020. The pandemic has highlighted social inequalities throughout the UK, particularly the vulnerability of the 4.2 million children living in relative poverty.
It seems that Shuggie Bain’s relevance in 2020 was clear to the prize judges who reportedly took only an hour to come to the unanimous decision to select the winner. Busby said that Shuggie Bain was “destined to become a classic”.
A diverse longlist
There is no doubt that prize shortlists – whether for literature, film or art – reflect the cultural and political moment in which they exist. This may seem an obvious point since all forms of art are influenced by the context within which they’re created. But it is nonetheless important to remember that prizes are not only celebrations of artistic endeavour; but are a kind of time capsule, capturing the cultural moment in which they were chosen.
The 2020 Booker Prize has contributed to this moment too. This year’s longlist was one of the most diverse in the prize’s history. On the shortlist, four of the six books were debut novels and four of the six shortlisted authors are writers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. It was also the most diverse judging panel ever.
During the ceremony, Busby was reluctant to suggest that the diverse selection of books was deliberate. She did, however, acknowledge that publishing still had some way to go “in terms of including people from a different demographic […] people from different classes, different ethnicities, different regions of the country”.
While the diversity of the authors and stories on the shortlist might suggest that publishing has made demonstrable progress in recent years, the Rethinking Diversity in Publishing report published earlier this year reminds us otherwise. The industry is far from implementing significant changes. Publishers continue to make broad assumptions about their core (white, middle-class) audiences, fail to reach diverse audiences, and undervalue writers and readers from BAME and working-class backgrounds.
So, while we should celebrate the 2020 Booker Prize for its diversity in voice, representation and themes, it has been borne of a specific moment in which we have been forced to examine societal inequities and structural inequalities. And we cannot become complacent about the enduring need to continue this work.
This year’s Booker prize shortlist offers the most diverse lineup ever with four female and two male writers, four of who are people of colour. But while the diversity of the 2020 shortlist for the best original novel is to be commended, the majority of the publishers of Booker-winning novels are still based in London.
This reflects that the concentration of power in UK publishing is still in the English capital. As such, non-English British writers published outside London are perennially disadvantaged by the Booker’s selection criteria.
And as it stands, of the 30 times the prize has been awarded to UK-based authors, it has only once gone to a Scottish author: James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late, in 1994. It went once to a Welsh author – Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member in 1970 – while Anna Burns became the first winner from Northern Ireland in 2018 for Milkman. Three non-English, but UK-based winners, all of which were published by London presses.
The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history, having originally been set up as an award for British and Commonwealth writers writing in the English language and published in the UK and Ireland.
Prior to this, the makeup of Booker winners was overwhelmingly male (67%), privately-educated (62%), and one-third of winners had attended Oxford or Cambridge University. No wonder, then, that Julian Barnes, former judge and winner of the prize, described it as “posh bingo”.
A publishers’ prize?
As with any literary prize, the Booker’s submission criteria has always influenced the kind of novels that are shortlisted. Its submission guidelines, which don’t allow entries from publishers who don’t publish at least two literary fiction titles a year, have created an unbalanced system.
And since a rule change in 2013, the prize is now weighted even more towards publishers with a history of having books longlisted for the prize – who are able to submitup to four entries. This change was said to be in the interest of fairness and to better “represent the levels of publishing the different sized houses do”. But many feel the changes work in favour of the bigger publishers.
In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller. And for non-English UK novelists published by small presses (self-published works are ineligible for the Booker), the Booker is simply not a plausible option.
As Leigh Wilson, professor of English literature, has argued on this site: “Booker rules make submissions from small publishers very tricky because of the size of the print run required and the amount of money that involves.” This is compounded by the fact that: “The rules of eligibility are almost entirely now about the publisher, rather than the novel or novelist”.
Absence of small presses
The prize also often illustrates a disconnect between the publishing industry and the reading public. This gulf could be behind the surging popularity of the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize, a reader-nominated, deliberately tongue-in-cheek, rejoinder to the Booker’s perceived pomposity.
This absence or marginalisation of writers in Wales, Scotland and Ireland seems not to relate to sales successes. Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s phenomenally successful Normal People, for example, didn’t make the step from longlist to shortlist for the Booker. This is despite it having a cult following, achieving substantial sales and being touted as the favourite when the longlist was announced.
But the Booker is far from alone in not reflecting bestseller lists. In his analysis of the Pulitzer prize for fiction (broadly the US equivalent of the Booker), author and academic, James F. English notes the number of shortlisted novels that also appear on that year’s top ten bestseller lists have been in steady decline – from a high point in the 1960s of 60% to under 5% in the 1990s.
That said, winning might not be all it’s cracked up to be, given a 2014 study found that literary prizes make books less popular.
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.
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.
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.