Matilda Singer reports on the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
The longlist for the Man Booker 2018, the largest and most prestigious literary award in the UK, was undoubtedly one of the most refreshing and varied in recent years. Featuring Belinda Bauer’s crime novel, Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina and a novel written entirely in verse by poet Robin Robertson, it was exciting to see a list engaging readers beyond the oft-times exclusive literary circle. This sense of widened appeal was certainly reflected in sales, with Snap outselling all longlistees and Normal People spending weeks in the bestseller charts (the latter is Irish author Sally Rooney’s second novel, making her an emerging talent I was disappointed to see omitted from the shortlist). So, on Tuesday evening when Belfast-born Anna Burns was awarded the £50,000 prize for her third novel Milkman, it seemed to be a return to the traditional literary air of the prize.
Burns’ win came against the odds, with bookies having tipped Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under as most likely on the morning of the announcement. Everything Under is a feminist retelling of Oedipus, transposing the myth to a troubled mother-daughter relationship in the modern day and the novel has been heaped with praise. But as a debut novelist, I think Johnson missing out on the prize is not so bad; winning at such a young age risks the Harper Lee effect (Lee famously didn’t publish anything for 55 years following the unparalleled success of her first book To Kill a Mockingbird). In itself, being shortlisted at 27 bodes for a promising career. The other favourite to win was Richard Powers, with many critics citing The Overstory as clearly the best work on the list. But with Powers’ status as an American male writer, perhaps the judges wanted to buck the emergence of a problematic trend (men have taken home the title for four years running, and the latter two were American).
Or perhaps, cynicism aside, the judging panel truly believed this to be the best novel written in the English language published this year. Set in an unnamed city, assumed to be Troubles-era Belfast, Burns relays the story of a young woman being sexually harassed by an older, more powerful man. Not only does the narrator possess a strong and distinctive voice, Milkman is an incredibly timely book, speaking directly to the #MeToo movement and the fractious Irish border. The author herself gave a truly humble acceptance speech, reminding us what the prize can mean for writers, in terms of prize money, career prestige and assurance of future sales. Indeed, Faber have already ordered a reprint of 120,000 copies.
Nevertheless, as a bookseller, I can’t help but feel a little flat at the outcome. Despite several shining reviews, the book has been marked out as a ‘challenging read’, with critics identifying unnamed characters, inelegant prose and lengthy paragraphs. Sadly, all this commentary makes for a difficult sell when you consider that the vast majority of book-buyers are reading for pleasure. Even more eye-watering, chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, likened the read to climbing Mount Snowden and justified the choice of such a book with ‘I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard’. Not exactly an encouraging endorsement for the general reader.
I’m not alone to balk at these comments – for many, this simply confirms the suspicion that the world of literary fiction is full of intellectual elitists. In The Times, James Marriott writes that ‘the judges have confirmed the tendency to see novels as status-markers rather than joyful, life-changing entertainments’, while freelance journalist Sarah Shaffi quickly responded to the announcement with a Twitter thread to point out that ‘literary fiction is not better than other types of fiction’ and remind us that ‘many people will think the Man Booker Prize is not for them…let’s not compound the problem by telling them to try harder with a book’.
Personally, the book I would have liked to see win is Washington Black. Esi Edugyan’s third novel (and second Booker shortlisting) relays the widely expansive and gripping adventures of George Washington Black as he escapes a slave plantation in Barbados and travels to Nova Scotia, England, the Arctic and back again. The book is both a literary accomplishment and a highly readable page-turner that I have seen – and hopefully will continue to see – loved by every type of reader.
Of course, it is easy to sit here and critique the prize from the outside, forgetting the challenges that arise in trying to uphold the reputation of such a prestigious award. It must be incredibly difficult to maintain the status quo year on year as the judging panel changes, each with its own unique reading taste. Looking at the response to the Man Booker 2018 in particular – responses of judges, literary critics and readers varying wildly – perhaps the only thing to be concluded is that problems lie not within the prize itself, but with the conflicting rhetoric that surrounds it.