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Two winners, one prize, and a lot of controversy: the Booker Prize blunder explained

The Booker Prize for Fiction, love it or hate it, is a big deal. Not only is it highly prestigious, but publicity gained from winning the prize can generate a significant boost in sales: Milkman, by last year’s winner Anna Burns, sold almost 10,000 copies in the UK alone in the week following the win.

The announcement of this year’s Booker prize came as something of a surprise. The judges chose to award it to two authors: Bernardine Evaristo for her eighth novel, the expansive, beautifully told stories of twelve mostly black, mostly female characters, Girl, Woman, Other; and Margaret Atwood, for The Testaments, her highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The prize has been jointly awarded twice previously, in 1974 and 1992, before such an outcome was banned in 1993. This year, however, the judges unanimously refused to decide upon one winner.

The result has caused great controversy. Evaristo is the first black woman to be awarded the prize, and for some, her win has been soured by having to share the prize with Atwood. Sunny Singh, a writer and co-founder of the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, wrote for Gal-Dem, “2019 was a potentially revolutionary year for the Booker: an extraordinary book by a writer with an incredible track record [Evaristo]. Instead, a powerful white man’s [Peter Florence, chair of the judges] refusal to accept the prize’s own rules and a damaging insistence on pushing his own meagre agenda means even a first for the Booker has not gone untainted. The lesson from Booker in 2019 was that white supremacy could still not bear to reward a prodigious black woman writer a win of her own.” Erica Wagner, chair of the 2019 Goldsmiths prize for fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form” and herself a former Booker judge, wrote in the Financial Times, “when you sign up to be a Booker judge, [choosing one winner] is what you agree to do, because those are the rules…A choice needed to be made, and what was made instead was fudge.”

The controversy deepened when one of the judges, the writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch, wrote in The Guardian, “How do you judge the titanic career, the contribution to culture of Margaret Atwood, against the sheer beauty of Elif Shafak’s Istanbul?” Shafak was shortlisted for her novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, set in the Turkish city.  Hirsch’s suggestion that previous achievements should be taken into account angered some, including Sam Jordison, whose publishing house published Lucy Ellmann’s shortlisted book Ducks, Newburyport. Jordison tweeted, “We were led to believe it was a book prize, not a career prize. This is devastating to read. Why enter?”

Not all the reaction has been so condemnatory. John Boyne, the writer who is possibly best known for his novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, wrote in The Irish Times, “it seems extraordinary to me that the five people who recommended these six novels to us should be pilloried for praising the virtues of two equally…If the judges felt that they needed the world to know about these two novels, shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration? It seems to me that the work of these two fine writers is being overlooked as commentators express their disappointment that there wasn’t a knock-out in the final round. Do we really long for a champion that much?” However, this defence from a white, male author seems not to grasp the issue at hand – his failure to address the relevance of the first black female winner being made to share the prize suggests he doesn’t really understand the controversy of the judges’ decision.

What have the protagonists of this news story said about it? In her acceptance speech, Evaristo said she was “absolutely delighted to share [the prize] with the legend that is Margaret Atwood”; Atwood said in hers that it “would have been quite embarrassing” to have been accepting the prize alone.

Doubtless this controversy will settle down, and the literary world will move on. It is, however, a shame that the history-making victory of Evaristo has been tainted in the eyes of many by having to split the prize with a white woman – one who freely admits that she does not need the attention. Atwood’s book sold more than 100,000 hardback copies in its first week of being on sale in the UK. Girl, Woman, Other has been less commercially successful so far, and one must dearly hope that the controversy surrounding this year’s Booker prize doesn’t detract attention from Evaristo’s book itself: the poetic prose, the characters, the way everything slides together – it is magnificent, a work of art.

Image: dvdbramhall via Flickr

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