John Boyne: In defence of the Booker judges

If the judges felt that they needed the world to know about these two novels, shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration?

From left, the 2019 jurors for the Booker Prize  are Afua Hirsch, Joanna MacGregor, Xiaolu Guo, Liz Calder and Peter Florence. Photograph: Clara Molden /Booker Prize Foundation

From left, the 2019 jurors for the Booker Prize are Afua Hirsch, Joanna MacGregor, Xiaolu Guo, Liz Calder and Peter Florence. Photograph: Clara Molden /Booker Prize Foundation

 

In 2012, the literary world exploded in rage when the judges for the Pulitzer Prize decided that, despite a shortlist of three, no novel published that year had been good enough to receive the fiction award. This week, there’s been a similar level of opprobrium directed at the Booker Prize jury for declaring that two novels were so good that they could not choose one over the other and so awarded it to both.

The Times suggested that the powers behind the prize had “lost the plot”, while the Daily Telegraph not only labelled it a “spineless fudge” but declared that the decision “diminishes not just the Booker Prize, but us all”, a suggestion so over the top that it’s disappearing into the clouds. And needless to say, the ever sensible folk of Twitter were so outraged that one might have thought the judges had not only honoured Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo jointly, but had ordered the other shortlisted authors to exit the Guildhall immediately, make their own way home and never commit pen to paper again.

Having judged the International Dublin Literary Award in 2011 (160-plus books to read), Canada’s Giller Prize in 2015 (150-plus books to read), and currently serving as a judge for the 2019 Costa Novel Award, I know a little of literary juries and the demands that are made of them. (That’s me; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Or maybe in that analogy I’m the father of the bride?)

Often, there are more books to read than there are days to read them in, and publishers frequently submit novels that have absolutely no chance of making even the longest of longlists. The fifth volume of an endless science fiction epic, for example. The 18th case for an alcoholic detective with an estranged daughter and a tendency towards self-destructive behaviour. Why they do this is anyone’s guess, but I suspect they’re either under a contractual obligation to the author or are simply throwing everything they have at the wall and hoping that one or two will stick. Reading all these books is a laborious process, but it’s an enjoyable one too, and there’s something wonderful about presenting a list to the public and saying: “these are all worth reading”.

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize. Photographs: Getty Images
Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize. Photographs: Getty Images

After putting in so much work, however, the inevitable carping from the sidelines can be dispiriting. After the Giller ceremony, I was told that a section of the audience had planned on walking out if we chose a particular novel as they did not feel that the author was truly Canadian. (We had chosen a different book anyway, but the comment irritated me.) And a few years after the Dublin award, a publisher asked me who had won during my year on the jury and when I said “Colum McCann”, she rolled her eyes and insisted that we always gave it to an Irish writer. Which was not only unfair but completely untrue because, at the time of McCann’s victory, there had been 15 previous winners and only one had been Irish.

On the day when a decision is made, each juror will naturally have his or her own preferences but it’s important that the winner should be a book that at least one person believes to be the best of the year, rather than a compromise candidate that everyone has as their second or third favourite. After all, if you don’t allow a book that has a passionate advocate to take the prize, then you run the risk of giving it to something that is so bland that it causes no offence to anyone.

When this year’s Booker shortlist was announced, it received a fairly good reception. Elif Shafak’s powerful 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World offered a dark and complex insight into contemporary Istanbul while Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport followed the Mike McCormack path of one sentence per novel, but continued that sentence over a thousand pages, proving itself a work of literary audaciousness that was not for the faint-hearted. It had been almost 25 years since Salman Rushdie had last been shortlisted so it felt like a good time for readers to return to his work with his latest novel, Quichotte, and Chigozie Obioma had been shortlisted a few years earlier for his outstanding debut, The Fishermen, so his admirers, of which I am one, were delighted to see that he didn’t let us down with his follow-up, An Orchestra of Minorities.

So, 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. While a case could be made for the director of the prize stepping in at such a moment and saying, “well if you can’t decide between them, then I will,” she chose not to do that and, in the absence of such authoritarianism, is it not reasonable for us to welcome the decision rather than feel disappointed by it?

Of the two winners, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments has been greeted with near unanimous praise as well as stellar sales and yet, for her part in this drama, suggestions were made that it was more of a lifetime achievement award than anything else. I suspect that nothing could be further from the truth. The Testaments brings a new dimension to the characters and world of Gilead and it could scarcely be published at a more appropriate time. Atwood is a deserving winner, not because of her incredible body of work, but because she wrote a great book.

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was also highly acclaimed and the fine work of this under-the-radar author will receive a huge boost from her win. Combining the voices of a dozen black women in a novel which is as audacious as it is readable makes this a title to be celebrated and it’s shocking to note that Evaristo is the first black woman to win the prize. But she too is a deserving winner, not because of her colour or the fact that she has, perhaps, been overlooked in the past, but because she too wrote a great book.

So, what exactly is wrong with that? 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?

Of course, the Booker wasn’t the only literary outrage of the month. More disappointing was the cruel hoax pulled on John Banville, who for 40 minutes believed himself to be the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s impossible to know what goes through the mind of a person who would commit such a foul deed but, whoever they are, they should feel utterly ashamed. At least in Banville’s case, he is one of a handful of living writers who have a legitimate chance of hearing the phone ring on Nobel morning, which speaks to his great contribution to world literature. He can take satisfaction in knowing that he probably achieves more while writing his weekly shopping list for Tesco than the so-called prankster will in his entire life.

In mid-November, I and the two other members of the Costa jury will meet in London to formulate our own shortlist for Novel of the Year and when it’s revealed, I don’t want to hear any complaining from the back, alright? That said, I’ll probably stay off Twitter for a couple of days. Although, given the year that I’ve had, some might say that would be advisable anyway.

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