At some point in the 1960s, some brainy literature types got together in England and said, hey, let’s make a new literature award to compete with the Nobel/Pulitzer. What say you, chaps? And thus endeth our history lesson of the germination of the Booker Prize. (Here’s a better summary. And one more.)
If I came late to Great Literature (if “discovering” the classics in my early 20s can be called “late”), I came even later to the Booker. It was not until I read The Inheritance of Loss, in 2006, that I became aware of the award (which began in 1969). I am sure I had seen it referenced on other book covers but had never connected the dots, which makes sense, since I didn’t even know there were dots to be connected.
But it’s never too late, except when it is, to discover new things. What is this award? If no Americans were eligible (they weren’t in 2006), does that make it better than our National Book Award? What about the Pulitzer? The Nobel? How many other Booker Award winners had I read but had no clue about? Are there other awards I don’t know about but should? I had some work to do.
There is something appealing about Americans not being eligible to win awards, so instantly I declared the Booker superior to the National Book Award, Pulitzer, or Nobel, which Americans could win. And given that I had been reading Great Literature and only Great Literature in the 10 years leading up to 2006, it seemed likely I would have read most, if not all, of the previous winners. Let’s head to the Booker Web site. Time to feed the ego.
Except that after examining the list of winners, I was stark-raving starving. As in, totally starving. Literally starving. I had not read one single book on the list other than The Inheritance of Loss. Not. One. Single. Book. To say I was humiliated was not totally accurate, because I had at least heard of most of the winning authors, including some whose non-Booker-winning books I had read, and I had heard of some of the winners. Still… ouch. Now of course I knew I hadn’t read everything, most things, or even many things. But if I wasn’t well-read, I was at least… well… read?
If I was ignorant of the Booker winners, it was nothing compared to my ignorance of literature awards in general. In addition to generic individual country awards—the Prix Goncourt, the Strega, the Sao Paolo Prize for Literature, etc.—there were dozens of others. We have the Baileys Prize for UK women (formerly the Orange Prize), the Edgar Awards (mystery), the Nebula Awards (sci-fi in the US), the Hugo Award (sci-fi for the world). There are the Newberry and Caldecott Medals (children’s literature in the US). We have the “American Nobel,” The Neustadt International Prize for Literature. To say this is a partial list is to understate the understatement.
Those are no doubt great awards, but if it’s September we are talking about the Booker Prize, because in September the shortlist is announced. Ever since my initial humiliation with The Inheritance of Loss I have followed the Booker more closely, and though I haven’t read every winner from 2006 on, I have read most of them, and many of the nominees as well. (My personal favourite, winner or otherwise, is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which did win in 2014.)
But it is one thing to know who is nominated and who wins. That is mere knowingness, not knowledge. In reviewing Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, James Wood in The New Yorker writes:
There is a difference between knowingness and knowledge, but what is it? Knowingness comes after knowledge; it is only the echo of its source, and it is proud to be the echo. One of the liberties of our connected age is that we can be almost infinitely knowing, consoling our lack of true knowledge with an easy cynicism of acquisition.
So while it is easy for me to know who wins, it is less easy understanding why. Other than being written in English and published in the UK or Ireland, the remaining criteria for the Booker is remarkably straight-forward: it is simply “Awarded annually to the best novel of the year.”
Best at what? Best (or most popular) for readers? Best style? Best message? Most innovative? Best book that nobody reads? Looking over the winners since 2000, we can see no clear consensus, which is not necessarily a bad thing. You can find something for everyone.
This is generalising at its finest, and the categories overlap, but here we go anyway. We have a few historical novels (The Blind Assassin, Wolf Hall), some comedy (The Finkler Question, The Sellout), experimentation (Lincoln in the Bardo), and even some popular works/best sellers (The Luminaries, Life of Pi). There are a few “lifetime achievement” winners—not necessarily the best books by the winners, or even the best book of the year—but recognition of the winner’s greatness. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending belongs here, as do Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and John Banville’s The Sea. Also present are books nobody seems to understand just why there were even nominated, let alone won (The Gathering, Milkman, Vernon God Little).
Inevitably there is backlash. When The Luminaries won in 2013, it was derided in some quarters as being “popular” or not literary enough. Others were seen as too literary or esoteric, such as The Gathering (2007) and Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). When Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won in 2016, the first year Americans could win, it seemed a dream come true for those not in favour of Americans and their new eligibility to win the award. Did you see that? The snobs with the Booker tried to shed their snobbiness by including the intellectually-challenged Yanks, and then had the gall to give the award to an American book titled The Sellout! The irony of ironies.
What stands out about those and other winners? Excellent question. Having no standards except the ambiguous “best novel of the year” leaves the committee open to criticism (which, to be fair, it would receive no matter what). It’s not that the more controversial winners lacked merit, even in the eyes of those who didn’t think they should win. The problem rests with the very idea of awarding something based on criteria that can be nothing but subjective.
A novel is nothing if not limitless, so it’s no surprise there is no one way to determine its worth. It’s not like we can line the authors or the books up and have them engage in hand-to-hand combat to decide who wins. The committee will state its case, and critics and readers alike will request whatever drugs the committee members used to make their choice.
Which brings us to the 2019 nominees:
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo
An Orchestra of Minorites, Chigozie Obioma
Quichotte, Salman Rushdie
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Elif Shafak
As ever, there are multiple categories to choose from, and of course the books can lay claim to any of those (and more). Ranging from experimental (Ellmann) to traditional (Obioma), from topical (Rushdie, Evaristo) to didactic (Shafak), it’s an interesting mix. If there is a common theme, Alex Clark, writing in The Guardian, says, “There has been an emphasis on experimentation and engagement with the present day.” And with Atwood’s The Testaments, there is even a sequel. Again, something for everyone.
For what it’s worth, oddsmakers have installed Ducks as the favourite. Will it prevail? If history is a guide, given its subject matter—a tale of modern America narrated by an anti-Trumper in Ohio—all we can say for certain is that it might.
(Or it might not.)