Ah, the barmy Booker Prize. Despite its best efforts, each year it always ends up either looking a bit silly or forced to go on the defensive, derided for being out of touch or too populist, for picking madly obscure novels or too many winners written by Americans.
This year the judges surpassed themselves by not picking a winner at all. Instead, the £50,000 prize was divided between two novels: The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, a novel written partly in verse that links the lives of 12 black women.
It’s not the first time two authors have walked away with the prize – Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth both did so in 1992, for The English Patient and Sacred Hunger, prompting the foundation to make it mandatory that, from then on, only one author could win. It realised, as Peter Florence, the prize’s chairman evidently does not, that to dodge the issue of picking a winner only highlights the inherent absurdity of five people deciding on the year’s best book in the first place. If two authors can win, why not three authors next year? Why not all six?
Furthermore, this rather spineless fudge risks amplifying a latent cultural anxiety about the role and purpose of artistic competitions in general.
Recently, the novelist Olivia Laing split her prize money for winning the James Tait Black prize with her fellow nominees, arguing that “competition has no place in art”. I’m not sure I agree – competition can give an important place in the public consciousness to a potentially elitist activity; it can also shine a spotlight on less mainstream artists who might otherwise gain no recognition.
Competitions become problematic when they lose sight of what they are awarding a prize for. One wonders whether, in the instance of this year’s Booker shortlist, what was being debated in the closed room that night, as the panel repeatedly failed to find a consensus, was not the respective literary qualities of The Testaments or Girl, Women, Other, but the broader question of what each of these novels represents, in a culture in which tribal identity rather than merit is seen as the thing of greatest value.
Atwood’s success this time precisely embodies this insidious trend. Its 1985 predecessor is a masterpiece of late-20th-century fiction. It’s virtually heretical to say it, given the cult-like status that now surrounds Atwood, but The Testaments is entirely mediocre, seemingly written to meet the demands of a woke culture animated in part by the success of the TV adaptation of its predecessor but also ravenous for stories that fit today’s MeToo narrative. Its appeal lies less in its easily digested prose style, than in the way it relentlessly reinforces today’s dominant narrative of women as empowered victims and men as implacable oppressors.
Girl, Woman, Other is a far more interesting work – stylistically ambitious and, in its multitudinous exploration of the inner lives of black women across the 20th century, a welcome fillip to a publishing industry belatedly waking up to the richness to be found in narratives about black experiences. Yet it’s also prone to socking thickets of clunky prose, and while it’s very good, it is hard to argue that it’s a technically better novel than, say, Max Porter’s longlisted Lanny, which also plays around with poetic form, to equally invigorating effect.
A creeping literary orthodoxy, in which what matters is not so much the quality or subtlety of a novel’s prose as the correctness of its message or the particular cultural experience it represents, has been entrenched by the Booker this year which, in the main, has opted for issue-led fiction, much of it concerned with racial or sexual identity.
It is customary to bemoan the shortlist for what it didn’t include, but this year’s omissions seem almost perverse. Deborah Levy’s longlisted The Man Who Saw Everything, to my mind the best novel this year, is a piercing study of abusive sexual and political power systems, but nothing about it can be easily summarised by a hashtag or a slogan, so go figure.
I also challenge anyone to find a novel containing more perfect sentences than Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day, about the tangled love lives of a group of north Londoners and ignored entirely by the panel. You can almost hear the conversation: “We really don’t need another novel about middle-class white people” – and they may be right. Literature needs fresh new voices all the time.
On Monday, however, the Booker not only failed to show what it stood for, but also appeared to help perpetuate a slow but spreading dogma regarding the right sort of stories at the expense of literature itself. It’s a failure that diminishes not just the Booker Prize, but us all.