Home / Lounge / Features /  Opinion | Missed chance? The Booker Prize 2019 could have been a historic one

This could’ve been a different story—one with a different set of headlines, records and “rebellions". The 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction was announced in London last night and, in an unusual and unexpected move, jointly awarded to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, who will split the £50,000 prize for their novels, The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other, respectively.

In true Booker style, however—scandal, self-aggrandizement—the judges’ rule-breaking antics took precedence over what could’ve been a truly record-smashing, history-making, trajectory-altering move for the prize, which is now just over half a century old. While Evaristo became the first black woman to be spotlighted by the Booker in its long, often dark and dramatic history, the news of the double win overshadowed the prize coverage—from media outlets to 280-character tweets.

“My only booker take is that it is a shame that the first black woman to win has to share the glory," tweeted one user. Another echoed this sentiment: “The Booker has simultaneously delegitimized its own worth and diminished the achievements of a woman of color with this rousing double win." Others tweeted of their “One True and Worthy Winner" (Evaristo, in case you were wondering.)

After its headline, “Booker judges split between huge event novel and obscure choice" enraged readers online, The Guardian swiftly edited it to: “Booker judges try to have it both ways". The revised headline captures the sentiment regarding this “shared" prize: the judges attempted to simultaneously create history and celebrate legacy. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the book world felt similarly after last week’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement, awarded to two writers, Olga Tokarczuk for 2018 and Peter Handke for 2019.

At 79, Atwood, who previously won the Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, became the prize’s oldest winner, and the fourth writer to win the award twice—among JM Coetzee, Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel, who, readers think, will take home her third with the final book in her Wolf Hall trilogy next year. The Booker Prize has been split twice before: in 1974, between Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton; and in 1992, by Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth. Since then, the rules were altered so the prize “may not be divided or withheld". Chair-of-judges Peter Florence and the panel (Liz Calder, Xiaolu Guo, Afua Hirsch and Joanna MacGregor) “explicitly flouted" these rules and changed the game itself.. Trying to choose between the two novels was like a “judgment of Solomon," Florence said.

Of the winning books, Florence said: “These books both have something urgent to say and they also happen to be wonderfully compelling page-turning thrillers, which I think can speak to the most literary audience, as well as to readers who are only reading one book, or in this case two books, a year, and can speak at different levels to all sorts of different readerships." With this statement, he rekindled the question that has long-plagued the prize: is it meant for the best (read: “literary") novel or the most popular, and can a Booker novel be both? Florence also added that he did not believe the “power or the value" of the prize “resides solely in the cash": “I hope both winning authors will accept this as a mark of respect to two books," he said. Atwood and Evaristo were joined on the shortlist of six by Lucy Ellmann, Chigozie Obioma, Salman Rushdie, and Elif Shafak.

The case is less about Atwood being undeserving and more about wholly and fully rewarding, validating, and celebrating the first black (British) woman to win the Booker Prize for “fiction at its finest". (It's noteworthy, though, that while Atwood was the bookies' favourite, The Testaments has had mixed reviews.) Florence is right in saying that the validation of the Booker Prize goes far beyond the £50,000. It is considered the premier, most prestigious prize for any English-language novel published in Britain, the centre of the ex-Empire. This is 2019, and over 50 years of Bookers later, Evaristo—whose writing career spans two decades and eight novels—had to say this in her winning speech: “I will say I am the first black woman to win this prize, and I hope that honour doesn't last too long. I hope other people come forward now."

The case of two female writers co-winning the prize is heartening—considering not long ago the Women’s Prize for Fiction was created as a “corrective"—just as the Nobel Prize in Literature’s decision to reward to two non-English writers was refreshing. But this doesn’t mean we pat prizes on their backs for the bare minimum; this doesn’t mean we stop holding them to higher, better standards or never shake up the pedestals we’ve placed them on. The annual “Booker backlash" is expected, even entertaining, but the discourse and critical currency it creates around and about the politics of literary prizes can no longer be circumvented or dismissed as mere memes or “prize gossip".

Last year’s winner, Milkman by Anna Burns, was deemed a “difficult" read by judges; it has since sold over 600,000 copies. The “Golden Booker" Prize (awarded to Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient) was an exercise in nostalgia on the Booker's part—the prize basking in its own glory. Instead of re-consecrating the Booker’s own—those already within its narrow orbit—why not make the Booker family bigger, bolder, more diverse, and move it in new directions? The 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature had two opportunities. The Booker Prize could've made the most of one.

Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London

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