If there was an award for controversies involving literary prizes, John Banville would have to be on the shortlist.
The Irish author, who won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, has been heavily criticised on social media for saying “I despise this ‘woke’ movement” in an interview for the Hay Festival Winter Weekend.
Asked whether it would be possible for him to win the Booker or even to get published today because of “this current suspicion about white straight men”, and whether he was now disadvantaged, he replied: “I would not like to be starting out now, certainly. It’s very difficult.
“I despise this ‘woke’ movement. Why were they asleep for so long? The same injustices were going on. It’s become a religious cult. You see people kneeling in the street, holding up their fists – that’s not going to do anything for black people.
“Black people or transgender people should not be given a special place. They should be given the same treatment as the rest of us. God, I can hear the Twitter comments going already. Do I care? Absolutely not.”
This year's Booker Prize was won by Douglas Stuart, a gay Scottish-American writer. Last year's prize was shared by Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo responded to the Daily Telegraph's report of Banville's comments by tweeting: "To be 'woke' means striving to make society more equal & less discriminatory, so how can you despise it? Yet the term 'woke' is now being vilified, just as 'feminism' was for years. 'When entitlement is the norm, equality feels like defeat.' Katie Cannon."
The Irish author was one of 150 authors, academics and journalists to sign a letter in Harper's Magazine in October criticising "a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity".
The letter, whose signatories included Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling, Martin Amis and Noam Chomsky, began by stating that “our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial” and that the free exchange of information and ideas is “daily becoming more constricted” while it is now “all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought”.
In his Hay interview, Banville spoke about having to educate his daughter about the extent of censorship in 1950s Ireland. He approvingly quotes historian Hugh Trevor-Roper likening communism and Catholicism for their control over how people thought.
Banville, a former literary editor of The Irish Times, is one of Ireland’s most celebrated authors. As well as the Booker, he has won the 1976 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the 2011 Franz Kafka Prize, the 2013 Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the 2014 Prince of Asturias Award for Literature. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007, he was made a Cavaliere of the Ordine della Stella d’Italia by Italy in 2017.
He was the victim of a cruel hoax last year when he received a phone call from Stockholm on the day two Nobel Prizes in Literature were announced, telling him he had won. "For 40 minutes I was a Nobel Prize winner," he reflected afterwards.
In his wide-ranging Hay Festival interview, conducted over Zoom from a bedroom in his home, Banville speaks frankly about his latest work, Snow, his first crime book to appear under his own name.
“I was getting tired of Benjamin Black. Last year I was writing the sequel which required me to read some of the older books. It made me ill so I listened to the audiobooks read by Timothy Dalton. Dalton is mocked for being a bad James Bond but I think that is a sign of quality in an actor. The books ceased to be mine. I said to myself, these are not so bad at all. Why am I hiding behind a pseudonym?”
Banville has previously antagonised fellow crime writers by his perceived downplaying of crime fiction in comparison to his other work. Now he says: “I hate the notion of genres. To me there is just good writing and writing that’s not good. If I was running a bookshop the books would be arranged alphabetically. There would be no crime section or that awful literary fiction invention.”
Writing as Black, however, he said he could produce 2,000 words by lunchtime compared to 200 as Banville. “They are as well crafted as I can make them but they are craftwork, they have no pretensions to be more than that. The [Banville] books are very problematic for me, I loathe them all as I set out trying to achieve perfection and you can’t have that so they are all failures. I have a fantasy when passing a bookshop that I click my fingers and the pages go blank. As Paul Valéry said, a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.
Banville describes 1950s Ireland, the period when Snow and his Black books are set, as “a hideous time. Thank God my children don’t have to live then. We had our own gulag, unmarried mothers were hideously treated, but thousands didn’t die, so instead of evil let’s say wickedness.”
Archbishop McQuaid “was a wicked man”, he says. “The aim of the church in collusion with the State was to keep the people infantilised.” He describes watching a pregnant woman pushing a pram and holding a child step off the pavement into the road to let a priest pass. “No artist can have a social conscience but I suppose I can in my crime books.”
The author says he differs from Roddy Doyle, who reckons Ireland was transformed by the 1990 World Cup. Banville thinks it changed with the revelation that Bishop Eamon Casey had a mistress and a son supported by diocesan funds. “When that story broke in The Irish Times, where I worked and I’m very proud of that, the floodgates opened and Ireland began to change very rapidly.”
Asked whether there is such a thing as an Irish novel, Banville said: “First of all, a novel is a novel. But Irish English or Hiberno English is a very distinctive literary form, you see it in Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett. It’s the result of the tension between the Irish language which Ireland gave up in the Famine years and the basic English we were given, which produced a new literary mode that was very distinctive.
“George Orwell said a page of prose should be like a pane of glass, you look through it. The Irish see language as a lens – lenses distort, they are very highly polished, they always affect what is being seen through them. I find the notion of pulling on the green jersey inimical. We lost our language which was a disaster but we took on English and look what we did with it.”
In a final reflection on this pandemic year, he said: “Have you noticed since Covid we have had the most exquisite weather? We had a beautiful spring, it didn’t rain for six weeks, we are having an exquisite autumn. Mother nature said, they are suffering so much. We are the most terrible virus this planet has ever had and we may well kill it unless mother nature decides this is enough and comes up with a virus next time that will be the real one.”
Banville’s own Booker Prize was not without controversy, given that he had written a damning review of that year’s favourite, Saturday by Ian McEwan, “a dismayingly bad book”. John Sutherland, chairman of the Booker judges, wrote to defend McEwan and criticise factual errors in Banville’s review. Banville wrote back: “Summoned, one shuffles guiltily into the department of trivia.”
Yet Sutherland’s casting vote secured Banville the prize. A 2008 interview with Alexis Soloski in the Village Voice begins:
“In 2005, when John Banville heard his name called as the winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, he looked around the hall and thought, ‘Imagine how many people hate me right now.’
“I said some things that really annoyed the London literary people. In an interview immediately after the prize-giving, I said I was glad to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize for a change...
“The Booker Prize and literary prizes in general are for middle-ground, middlebrow work, which is as it should be. The Booker Prize is a prize to keep people interested in fiction, in buying fiction. If they gave it to my kind of book every year, it would rapidly die. So it’s better that it goes to big books by big names that will sell vast quantities.”
In 1989, Banville won the Guinness Peat Aviation Award for The Book of Evidence but not before Graham Greene sought to overrule his fellow judges to pick The Broken Commandment by Vincent McDonnell as the winner. Greene had included a clause in his contract that allowed him to overrule his fellow judges. Ultimately, Banville was awarded the £50,000 main prize while McDonnell received a specially created GPA First Fiction Award.