The link below is to an article that looks at writing tips from Margaret Atwood.
The links below are to further articles relating to this year’s Booker Prize controversy.
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.
Speaking last night, Atwood herself said: “I kind of don’t need the attention.” When she won the Booker in 2000 with The Blind Assassin, she had already been nominated on three other occasions, including in 1986 when The Handmaid’s Tale lost out to The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.
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.
The link below is to an article reporting on the judging of the 2019 Booker Prize.
The links below are to articles reporting on the shock joint winners of the Booker Prize for 2019, Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.
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The latest big news in the book world, following on from the controversy surrounding the 2019 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, are the dual winners of the 2019 Booker Prize. The links below are to articles reporting on the joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize – Margaret Atwood (The Testaments) and Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other).
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The link below is to a book review of ‘The Testaments,’ by Margaret Atwood.
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains plotlines and details from Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Testaments
When Margaret Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, she felt that the main premise seemed “fairly outrageous”. She wondered: “Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?”
How times have changed. The connection the novel makes between totalitarianism, reproduction and control of women is now legible to most of us. The image of the red-and-white-clad handmaid has become a symbol in the wider culture of resistance to the restriction of women’s reproductive rights and to their sexual exploitation.
Partly this is a consequence of the immensely successful TV series, the third series of which has just concluded. Series one was directly based on Atwood’s novel and subsequent episodes over two years have continued the story of Offred beyond the ambivalent ending Atwood imagined for her, in which her fate is uncertain. Now, in her eagerly awaited sequel, The Testaments, Atwood makes a series of dizzying creative decisions which move away from, but also develop out of, both novel and TV series.
The action of The Testaments takes place 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The claustrophobic first-person narration of Offred is widened out to incorporate the stories of three narrators. These narrators are Aunt Lydia – the most senior of the Aunts in the first novel, who trains and manages the handmaids on behalf of the Gilead regime – and two young women.
It is in the identity of these young women that Atwood incorporates elements of the TV series. We discover that both are Offred’s daughters. One, Agnes, is the daughter she was forced to give up when she became a handmaid. The other, Nicole, is the baby she is pregnant with at the end of the novel and gives birth to in the second series of the TV programme.
Agnes has been brought up as a privileged daughter of the Gilead regime; Nicole – and the name choice here, as well as aspects of the story, draw on the TV series – has been smuggled out of Gilead by the May Day organisation and raised in Canada.
The inventiveness of this choice of narrators, plus the time shift, allows Atwood to do all sorts of exciting things. She explores what it actually means to be a mother. The Gilead regime has to keep records of bloodlines to avoid the genetic conditions attendant on incestuous couplings. Genealogical information is kept by the Aunts in folders organised by the male head of the family, but paternity will always be more uncertain than maternity. We never find out for sure who Nicole’s father is, although there are hints.
More broadly, though, can the same uncertainty be attached to the mother figure too? As one of the Marthas (the domestic servant class in Gilead) says to Agnes when she finds out that the person she believed to be her mother was not her birth mother: “It depends what you mean by a mother … Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?” How do we define a mother when conventional family structures have been upended?
Making a difference
The interplay between the three women’s stories also allows us to compare how individuals make decisions about what constitutes ethical behaviour in a totalitarian regime. In the world of The Testaments, unlike in The Handmaid’s Tale, later period Gilead is on its uppers. It struggles to control its leaky borders and there is internecine in-fighting and betrayal within the upper echelons of the Commanders.
Unbabies – defective births – continue to be born and the resistance is growing. Lydia begins to plot Gilead’s downfall, but in retrospect we also get her account of her earlier collaboration as the regime was established. Do her attempts to destroy Gilead cancel out her previous decision to collaborate? If she had not survived, she would not have been alive to work to bring down the regime, but can the master’s tools ever dismantle the master’s house?
Casualties of the resistance efforts abound. Becka – a friend of Agnes and a survivor of child sexual abuse – sacrifices herself for the greater good of what she believes to be the purification and renewal (rather than the destruction) of Gilead. Nicole (who engages in an undercover operation in Gilead vital to the resistance) remarks that she “somehow agreed to go to Gilead without ever definitely agreeing”. The novel asks readers to think about the extent to which exploitation of idealism and naivety are appropriate as means that justify the end of Gilead’s potential destruction.
Judgement of history
The Testaments ends with the Thirteenth Symposium of Gilead Studies – an academic conference taking place many years after the regime’s destruction. This is the same framing that concludes The Handmaid’s Tale, although the emphasis here is different. In her book, In Other Worlds, Atwood claims that the afterword to the first novel was intended to provide “a little utopia concealed in the dystopic Handmaid’s Tale”.
But, for most readers of the original novel, the effect of encountering the afterword is the opposite of optimistic. Reading it diminishes and undermines our emotional investment in Offred’s narrative, as historians debate whether or not her story is “authentic” and a professor warns us that “we must be cautious about passing moral judgement on the Gileadeans”.
The same historians make similar comments in the Thirteenth Symposium that ends The Testaments, but here they are fundamentally convinced of the witness transcripts’ authenticity. The postmodern uncertainty about the status of Offred’s narrative in The Handmaid’s Tale could be seen as characteristic of the mid-1980s (with its suspicion of narrative authenticity and reliability), as characterised by Jean-Francois Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives”.
Now, in 2019, Atwood replaces that incredulity with a much clearer sense of the validity of women’s stories. I believe we can relate this change of emphasis to the different times we find ourselves in – where the notion of the equal status of all versions of the past and indeed the present has been abused explicitly by Trump and others who make accusations of “fake news”.
In Gilead, women are not allowed to read or write – unless they are Aunts. Agnes therefore struggles to become literate as a young woman. The description of her slow and painful acquisition of literacy reminds us of the vital connection between words and power and how important it is to validate women’s words in particular. A testament is a witness after all.