Controversy is in the DNA of the Booker Prize. The controversy of the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist is its diversity.
Written by Thushari Perera
Controversy is in the DNA of the Booker Prize. Usual topics of debate include how “the best book” of the year can be chosen by a small number of literary insiders, or which books will last when there are so many books to choose from. This year’s controversy is its diversity. The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist is regarded by the British media as “the most diverse ever” because it includes four people of colour (POC), four women and two white writers. Some conservative quarters do not put it mildly when they say that the shortlist has a “token white man”, who incidentally is the only Brit.
Five of the six nominated authors of this year’s Booker Prize are from the United States or hold joint citizenship. The shortlist consists of: Diane Cook for “The New Wilderness”, Tsitsi Dangarembga for “This Mournable Body”, Avni Doshi for “Burnt Sugar”, Maaza Mengiste for “The Shadow King”, Douglas Stuart for “Shuggie Bain”, and Brandon Taylor for “Real Life”. The rules changed in 2014 to allow anyone writing in English to compete if they have been published in the UK. The Telegraph however still laments that the “Man Booker used to provide a point of focus each year for British and Commonwealth fiction…Now it’s as though we’re perceived, and perceive ourselves, as only a subset of U.S. fiction, lost in its margins.” Two Americans have already won the Booker Prize since the rule change.
Booker Judges, Authors and Unconscious Bias
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation has retorted to media criticism by insisting that it is not about the nationality of the writers. She said: “No one wins the Booker Prize because of who they are. A book wins because of what it does.” Unsurprisingly perhaps, the British press was less acrimonious towards (White) US author George Saunders who won the Booker for “Lincoln in the Bardo” in 2017.
Insidiously, the British media also implies that this year’s judging panel is “unconsciously biased” because it includes more “visible minorities” than usual. It comprises publisher Margaret Busby, poet Lemn Sissay, literary journalist Sameer Rahim, writer Lee Child and academic Emily Wilson. Despite media innuendoes, this year’s chair of judges Busby said: “…in the first 43 years of the prize – now in its 51st year – only two people of colour had served as Booker judges out of more than 200.”
The Murdoch press however calls for the Booker to be judged blind by hiding the identity of the writers, even though they acknowledge that it would be difficult to disclose writing styles and preferred choice of topics by well-known authors. Dame Hilary Mantel’s concluding part of the Cromwell trilogy, which incidentally was left off the Booker shortlist, is the most common grudge against this year’s shortlist. Dame Mantel has already won the Booker Prize for “Wolf Hall” in 2009 and “Bring Up the Bodies” in 2012.
In a similar vein, the New Statesman writes that “In a year of reckoning with racial justice, the shortlist demonstrates the publishing industry’s commitment to do better.” The impact of the global Black Lives Matter movement protests, the newly established “Black Writers Guild” and countless other initiatives cannot be dismissed. However, the problem with this kind of reasoning is that it suffers from severe amnesia as it conveniently airbrushes and belittles Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers who have won the Booker before. Previous recipients of the prestigious Booker Prize of £ 50,000 include: V.S. Naipaul (1971), Salman Rushdie (1981), Kazuo Ishiguro (1989), Ben Okri (1991), Arundhati Roy (1997), Kiran Desai (2006) and Aravind Adiga (2008).
The Booker Prize Foundation and Sponsors
The heart of the matter is that the Booker Prize Foundation is a private organisation. It can do whatever it wants with its money. The Foundation makes the rules, chooses the judges, and controls the number of books that publishers can submit. So why is the media blaming the writers or even the judges?
Six years since the rules have changed, the Telegraph sill moans: “The Booker has abandoned Britain.” It is a as if the media cannot come to terms with the fact that the Booker has become an International Prize, with sponsors linked to Silicon Valley. When the rules initially changed, writer A.L. Kennedy said “It is a little bit weird that Britain hasn’t had an international prize…Ireland does. Amercia has some. It’s always seemed a little bit churlish to not reward people for wanting to be published by a British publisher and write in English.” According to the BBC the Booker also aims to compete with the International Dublin Literary Award (around £ 90,000) and the Folio Prize, which has an illustrious Academy of writers as judges.
Maybe a new national “British citizens-only” prize needs to be created by powerful media organisations, as popular book awards in Britain as the Costa Prize are open to “homegrown authors” or British residents. In the US, the Pulitzer Prize only accepts books by American authors, preferably dealing with “American life.”
Condescension, Misrecognition and Inclusivity
A major new “Brits-only” prize is arguably unlikely to resolve a major stumbling block: a particular section of British society and media keeps on questioning the legitimacy of books written by authors with “hyphenated identities”, whether they have dual nationality or are “mixed-raced” – irrespective of their actual readership, sales and accolades – when they do not recognise their own poor usual cultural selves and biases.
For instance, British literary giant Kazuo Ishiguro (who also has Japanese ancestry), who won the Booker Prize for his novel “The Remains of the Day” (1989), was snubbed by the media and other commentators when he won the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature. Will Self then said: “He’s a good writer, and from what I’ve witnessed a lovely man, but the singularity of his vision is ill-served by such crushing laurels, while I doubt the award will do little to reestablish the former centrality of the novel to our culture.”
The Evening Standard recently also questioned the “authority” of the coveted Booker Prize, which guarantees an increase in notoriety and sales, by enlisting none other than twice Booker-nominated British author Martin Amis. Amis declared that he does not feel a “literary push” behind the 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo, author of the book “Girl, Woman, Other”. Bernardine Evaristo was the first British woman of African heritage to win the Booker Prize (jointly with Canadian Margaret Attwood). Martin Amis said “Evaristo might be fine with the sociopolitical description via her writing, because she intends to reflect on a changing society.”
Evaristo replied: “Amis seems to belong to the school of privileged male writers of a certain generation who have benefited from a white, patriarchal society for decades…I do think there is a massive schism between writers who believe in creating a literature landscape that is more inclusive… and those who think they are superior to any attempts at inclusivity.” Evaristo also remarked that “All fiction, including his own, is sociopolitical.”
Whatever happens this year with the shortlist and whoever wins, academic Gillian Rudd, a lecturer in English literature, may be right when she says that the wider remit of the Booker outweighs all the controversies surrounding the prize, as the goal is “to get the general public reading more, and more literary stuff.” This year, there were 162 submissions and 6 were shortlisted. Margaret Busby, chair of the judges, said that the approach by the panel of judges was “…let’s choose the books that we actually feel have the best writing quality and subject matter, and that we want to champion. We didn’t check passports or work permits or birth certificates. We read the books.” So should we, the readers, including e-library readers. We should not blindly believe the British media, which suffers from a chronic lack of diversity and outlook.
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