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The problem with this year’s Booker Prize selection

The Booker Award was announced on October 14, 2019, and for the first time they had two winners: The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, which is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale; and Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, “polyvocal ‘fusion fiction’ about twelve primarily black British womxn”. I was taken aback by the fact that there are two winners. This has never happened in the fifty years of the Booker Prize being awarded. It is a compromise, and not a good one. This is a competition for a very important, lucrative award – the winning novel is either better than the other nominated ones, or it isn’t. (As they say in Forged in Fire – there can only be one winner.) I asked myself, why these two? But I was also feeling really annoyed by the whole business, and wondered why it exasperated me so much. I realized, after taking a dispassionate look at it, that it is because I hate having to deal with other people’s political agendas. And it is because I am not the target market for the award, the publishers or the authors this year. What I feel they are saying, is; Hey you, Ms. Bookworm, you are too old, too white, too middle-of-the-road, too conservative, too dumb, and too biased to read or understand these books. And since you are not who we hope to appeal to, go away and go read something else. 

Two winners? Nah.

I very much suspect that the judges wanted to appeal to popular sentiment in their choice of the shortlisted books, rather than focus on the quality of the writing. My immediate reaction to the decision of the panel of judges was that they were like Piers Morgan had said about one of his rivals; “excruciatingly virtue-signalling”.

The first indication of this is that the quality of the writing is…debatable.

I have never found Atwood’s Speculative Fiction to be exceptional, despite her having won the Booker Prize before in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. (I gave The MaddAdam Trilogy as well as The Heart Goes Last lukewarm reviews. They were just too derivative.) The Handmaid’s Tale is the most popular of all her novels, but that was written in 1985. The TV series made of it boosted the popularity of the novel to such an extent that Atwood gave in to the demands of her fans and wrote a sequel, The Testaments. As she explains; “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” That’s putting it plainly.

As for Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo is a longstanding advocate for the inclusion of writers and artists of colour and her previous eight works of fiction are about the African diaspora. I don’t think polyvocal fusion fiction and LGBT erotica is my thing. The novel is written is a mixture of prose and prose poetry. Seems like Evaristo is not a fan of punctuation, either. Below is a screen shot of a page from the novel:

Well, my goodness. I doubt that I could’ve gotten through 336 pages of that.

Definite similarities – the rest of the short list

Even on cursory examination, the shortlisted books are similar in many ways:

  • Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, NewburyportThis novel is about “an Ohio housewife who, while making cherry pies, tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America.”  That’s the publisher’s blurb, not mine. Below you can see a screenshot of one page of the paperback of 1040 pages. And they are all like that. Unbroken stream-of-consciousness. (In writing style it is similar to the winner of the 2018 Booker, Milkman by Anna Ward, a novel in which no-one has a name, just a description, which makes it very hard to follow.) It is a feminist novel, same as the winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other. I can tell you that I find it almost impossible to read novels where there are no line or paragraph breaks. Doesn’t it just make you slaver to read it? Nope.

  • Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities – Here, like some of the characters in Girl, Woman, Other, the characters have moved from an African country to Europe. And also similarly, one of the two main characters is female and black. And again similarly, the writing style is difficult: An Orchestra of Minorities is written in the Nigerian Igbo incantation style. That should take some patience to wade through. The novel starts with a chart of Igbo Cosmology so better buckle up – this is also going to be a difficult read. Below is a screen shot.

  • Salman Rushdie, Quichotte – A Novel – Inspired by the classic Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Quichotte is the story of an aging travelling salesman who falls in love with a TV star and sets off to drive across America on a quest to prove himself worthy of her hand. Rushdie is Rushdie – you either like his elaborate style of writing, which is always packed tight with cultural references, or you don’t. I’m in two minds, especially after his previous novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: A Novel, which I found overworked and unappealing. Many reviewers are, like myself, dumbfounded by Rushdie’s writing style and cannot understand it.
  • Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – This one also features a female protagonist – well, a dead one: It’s about a prostitute in Istanbul, Turkey, called “Tequila Leila”, and what led to her death. It is written from the viewpoint of the dead prostitute, 10 minutes, 38 seconds after she has died. It is very much about the abuse suffered by a woman, and her search for justice (tricky, once you’re dead). When George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the Booker in 2017, there was outrage that such a “weird” novel, in which Saunders depicts the dead “talking” in distinctive voices, could win. Yet, here we are again – the dead, talking. And you can either deal with this kind of narrator or you won’t even attempt it. Here is a screen short of the first page:

Spot the trend

So, can you spot the trends with the longlisted and shortlisted novels this year? The majority of authors are black and female. The majority of the novels are also about black women (three have characters that are from Nigeria), or “womxn”, and are about gender issues, feminism/female empowerment, and current politics; for instance “living in America in the age of Trump”. All of the shortlisted novels are written in styles that make them difficult to read.

I know the Booker has for the longest time not been strictly based on literary merit. I know no-one does “close reading” these days, not even of poetry. Nowadays it’s about the relevance of the book or the author to readers and the readers’ issues of the moment, and whether the book will be popular, or appeal to popular tastes – in other words, not my taste.

I am actually surprised, for an organization that is known for not supporting Science Fiction, that so many of the listed books have a Sci-Fi or Fantasy element.

In any case, what really shows up the taste of the judges in this instance, is that the books listed for the International Booker Prize are nothing like these – they vary widely in settings, characterization and themes.

The best of the best?

In one sense, the Booker judges chose well, since the aim of any award is to encourage people to buy and read the books. (Girl, Woman, Other probably needs the promotion, because as of this date, Nov. 17, 2019, it still had only seven reviews on Amazon – all five stars – but still only seven reviews since it was published in May 2019. By comparison, Quichotte has 78, and it was published not so long ago, in September 2019. Mind you, many of the reviews are not complimentary and just express confusion.)

Thus, if the characters, settings and subjects of these novels and authors are flavour of the moment, and appeal to Millennial readers (who don’t write reviews on Amazon?) then no doubt they will be read.

However, the true test is whether these books will still be regarded as masterpieces – the best in the English-writing world – in ten or 50 years’ time. And will lauded authors who have won before, like J.M. Coetzee, A.S. Byatt, Peter Carey, Yann Martel, Alan Hollinghurst and Julian Barnes, be happy with their work being put into the same category as these books? I wonder…

The Booker Prize goes back to 1969, and until this year, I had not noticed that the winners were chosen based on a political agenda. They were just chosen because they were good. Now, it seems that the writing style is much of a muchness, and it’s about everything else – even fan demands. Well, time will tell if, years after this, any of these books have become classics.

About the header: Photo from by George Becker, ✓ Free to use. ✓ No attribution required.

About M. Bijman

Avid reader, longtime writer of book reviews and literary analyses. Interested in literature, creativity and cognition, language and linguistics, musicology, and technology. Occasionally writes poems and bits of music.

2 comments on “The problem with this year’s Booker Prize selection

  1. The Booker has been heading this way for a long time. Funnily enough, my Blog name was taken from a heartfelt rant made by my eldest son about what is deemed literature by the current establishement. After volubly dissecting the problems with these books, he named the novel he proposed to write:

    The Cheesesellers Wife, in which a woman, now dead, narrates her upbringing in a small town on the plains, her complex marriage with a travelling cheeseseller, and her attempts to understand and change the place of women in an uncaring society. He proposed to write the novel in in blank verse. Sound familiar??

    He was 16, and had just suffered a series of key exams, including English Literature. 🙂

  2. I agree with you on one thing for sure: elevating difficult and purposefully obscure writing styles to the level of “great” can only exacerbate the divide between the average reader and the “literature” they are supposed to read.
    Then again, almost no one truly finishes Ulysses yet it has held on to its “great” mantle for a century now.
    I do like that awards judges take chances.

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