Look, you must have heard about this by now. It’s been everywhere. This is just one of the many many articles that has appeared on the subject since the whole thing was announced. This is another. And I… am unsure about this. Not sure at all.
For those who haven’t immediately jumped to the link and don’t know what I am talking about, I’m talking about the Booker Prize – a much venerated literary award – which this year was shared by two women – Margaret Atwood,for her long-awaited sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and Bernardine Evaristo, a woman of color, for her novel “Girl, WOman, Other”.
The rules by which the Booker has been awarded up until now is that the prize may not be “divided or withheld”. And yet… here we are. With two.
Evaristo is the first black woman EVER to win this, the most prestigious literary award in Britain… and she has to SHARE IT. Never mind it’s half the prize money – that’s immaterial under the circumstances – but it’s the principle of the thing. And while it isn’t unexpected that Atwood got (half) the nod – I mean, under current circumstances, aspects of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are fast becoming reality for some unfortunates, and it’s literally to be found in the news headlines these days. It’s a titanic and iconic book, and its sequel, a long time coming, was probably a shoe-in in some respects. But now the pot has been well and truly stirred by one of the award judges, by name of Afua Hirsch, who wrote an article declaring that the jury’s decision had been made difficult because they hat to judge “the titanic career, the contribution to culture of Margaret Atwood”.
THis led to a furious response from Sam Jordison, the publisher of Galley Beggar Press, a tiny publisher which is home to another shortlisted author, Lucy Ellman (who apparently wrote a 1000-page doorstop…) Jordison wrote, on social media, “We were led to believe it was a book prize, not a career prize. This is devastating to read. Why enter? In what way is this fair?”
He has an excellent point.
It isn’t like Evaristo is a newbie – the novel for which she shared (I am reluctant to say “won”) her Booker Prize was her EIGHTH novel. So she too has had a career. Now it isn’t just a competition between two novels, it’s a competition between two CAREERS, and Atwood wins that race. Everyone’s heard of her. The prequel to the book for which she shared (I am reluctant to say “won”) her Booker Prize is a meme, ferchrissakes, red-clad and white-bonnetted Handmaids have shown up IN PROTESTS and nobody at all is unclear on what the point of their presence is. Atwood is a household name. Evaristo… is not, despite a respectable number of books to her credit. She has said of this one, her laurelled one, that ” “we black British women know that if we don’t write ourselves into literature, no one else will”. The Atwood novels… are very white. There’s that. So here we have it, in literal black and white.
And my question crystallises into this.
I am certain that Atwood deserves a “career award”. That’s fine. She has made a huge contribution, and has written her name, and her books, into the fabric of the world. But should that have been enough to shoehorn her in here? If Evaristo was said to have deserved the Booker Prize for her work… why could she not have received it? Solo? With Margaret Atwood resting on her own laurels elsewhere…? Did “The Testaments”, the sequel for which Atwood won, really absolutely deserve the prize on its own merits… or was it a nod to our times? (I haven’t read the book yet.I haven’t read EITHER of the books. I plan to. I may have a personally better leg to stand on once I have done – but I am not talking book here, when it comes to that. I am talking PRINICPLE.)
A part of me wishes that Atwood had had the moral fibre to refuse the award and give her “half” to her co-winner. The part of me that is a writer understands why she did not (“my book! mine! won award! mine!”). But I WISH she had. I wish the human being had overcome the writer. I wish she could have seen and understood, instantly, the ramifications of “sharing” this prize, under these circumstances, with that co-winner.
On what basis are awards awarded, then? Are there some writers out there who win, and then there’s an asterisk next to their name, and they just keep winning – it’s just easier to give the award when you’re on a jury and you see THAT name and you go, eh, that one’s won before, must be good, let’s just give them another? Are there other writers (less seen, less noticed, less known, women writers, writers of color, writers who cross sometimes uncomfortable gender or cultural lines) who are simply and tacitly shoved to one side as too difficult to deal with?
I’m not making a case for anything nefarious. I am NOT. But I do wish that they had played by the prize’s rules here, no matter how hard it might have been. If they truly felt that Atwood deserved it – because OF HER BOOK, and not because of who she is, then they should have given her the prize and steeled themselves for the backlash that might have come (“You took the easy way out! You just gave it to her because you recognise her name!”. If they thought that Evaristo’s work was good enough for a Booker Prize – to the point that it stood up against someone like ATWOOD – then they might have had the spine to have awared the Booker to her, solo, and simply warded off any potential criticism with the absolutely unimpeachable, “the best book won” But this…? The more I learn about this situation the more ir feels simpering, cowardly, taking the easy way out.
Stand by your convictions, dammit. If a book deserves an award, give it. If you’re giving a book award because of the writer’s prior career to date… you may not be doing your job.