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.
For the first time since 1992 – and only the third time in the illustrious history of the Booker – the prize has been awarded to two novels: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.
In accepting the shared prize, both women were gracious. Atwood, at 79, felt that she was “too elderly”, and was happy to share; and Evaristo was honoured to share with the feminist literary legend. The £50,000 prize is to be divided and Atwood has announced that her £25,000 will be donated to the charity Indspire, which aims to enrich Canada through Indigenous education.
The value of winning the Booker is not just the honour, of course. For most authors, the value is the cash prize and the huge increase in sales which follows from the win. Last year’s winning title, Milkman by Anna Burns, has sold more than 500,000 copies and has changed Burns’s life immeasurably, as she made clear in a moving speech at last night’s black-tie awards dinner in London’s Guildhall.
As the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Testaments is already a conspicuous and assured commercial success. Live launched in 130 cinemas worldwide on September 10, the hardback edition has sold more than 179,000 copies in the UK and has performed well in terms of downloads as well. Meanwhile, the other winning title – Girl, Woman, Other – has sold only 4,000 copies in the UK to date, according to Nielsen Bookscan.
The Booker Prize process takes novels of a very different kind and places them on the same list. A panel of five judges is appointed each year and they spend most of that year reading submissions. This year, the panel, chaired by Peter Florence, got through 180 novels in 11 months. Having produced a longlist of 13 novels in July and a shortlist of six in early September, the jury’s task was to choose one winner in accordance with the published rules which explicitly state that: “The Prize may not be divided or withheld.”
This rule was established in 1992, because a committee chaired by Victoria Glendinning insisted on two winners: Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Even a year later, this palled with the well-known literary agent Giles Gordon, who thought that the Booker is about “winning not sharing”.
That a panel of five could not reach a consensus after hours of discussion elicited gasps of frustration and indignation from those who were at the Guildhall. It suggests that at least one panel member was exercising some sort of veto, and brings to mind the story of Philip Larkin, chair of the judges in 1977, who threatened to jump out the window if the title he preferred did not win (it did).
But Florence preferred consensus to coercion – and the panel wanted to signal that both winners are of particular note. That’s the official line, anyway.
Very different books
The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other are very different kinds of books, by very different kinds of author and will appeal to different kinds of readers. For Florence, it may be a case of “double the joy” and “double the reading pleasure”, but others will wish to choose.
The Testaments is assured, compelling, carefully plotted, slickly written and worthy of the hype. The structure of three different types of “testimony” – that of Aunt Lydia and two Gilead witnesses – is especially appealing and works well. It is a book which reads quickly and its appearance now, so many years after The Handmaid’s Tale, is testament to Atwood’s vision – and creative resilience.
Resilience has clearly been a huge issue for Evaristo, who is a longstanding advocate for the inclusion of people of colour in the arts. Born in London in 1959 to a white English mother and Nigerian father, Evaristo was educated at Rose Bruford Drama School and Goldsmith’s College. She founded the Theatre of Black Women in 1982, and has written seven novels to date.
Girl, Woman, Other is a multi-stranded narrative which gives voice to the experience of being a black British woman through 12 interwoven stories ranging from Newcastle in 1905, through London 1980, Oxford in 2008 and Northumberland in 2017. The work abandons the conventions of standard paragraphing and punctuation, a technique which has lead some readers to describe the form as “free verse”.
But Evaristo’s prose lacks the compression, lyricism and intensity of verse and this book often plays to very predictable cliché. This, arguably, is the point: cliché enables us to see beyond – and to think through – the issues of diversity and representation which are so central to individual racial experience.
Perhaps the judges should have weighed these losses and gains in the balance. If Evaristo’s work is worth honouring then surely it was worth the honour which would have come from being the sole recipient of the Booker Prize 2019.