• Isabelle Osborne

The Booker Prize 2020: a sign of changing times?

The Booker Prize is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel written in the English language. First awarded in 1969, the prize is open to writers of any nationality who's novel has been published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. The long-list for the 2020 award was announced in July.


The Booker has been criticised in previous years for lack of diversity and representation. Since 1969, 32 men and 18 women have won the prize. Since 2000, 57% of winners are male, and 76% of winners are white, and 86% of winners are from the British Isles, North America, Australia or New Zealand. Of the 300 books that have been shortlisted across the 50+ years the prize has been running, only four black women have ever made the shortlist; it was only in 2019 when Bernadine Evaristo was became the first black woman to win.


But will 2020 be different?


Diversity: nationality, sex, publishers and content


2020 raises hope for increasing diversity and representation within the literary world. Among those longlisted is Tsitsi Dangarembga, a Zimbabwean novelist, Avni Doshi, a writer of Indian origin, C Pam Zhang, a Chinse-American novelist, and Maaza Mengiste, an American-Ethiopian writer. What is more, nine of the 13 writers long-listed are women, which is significantly refreshing considering 57% of previous winners are male.


It is also pleasing that six of the longlisted books come from four independent presses: Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s, This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber), Colum McCann’s Apeirogon and Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury), Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King (Canongate) and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (Daunt Books Publishing). Although these publishers are can be categorised as the well-known and larger of the independents, the Booker seems to be shifting their attention away from the mainstream, mundane publishers and expanding their horizons.


Another thrilling aspect of the 2020 line-up is the diversity of issues explored. The books examine race, homosexuality, gender and gender identity, poverty, class, homelessness and climate change.


Debutants


I was unimpressed last year to see the Booker being awarded to the literary titan Margaret Atwood last year alongside Bernadine Evaristo. Despite being a fan of Atwood's work and appreciating the award being split between two female writers, Evaristo was the first black woman to win the prize (and who many consider to be the true winner with Girl, Woman, Other), and yet I felt her deserved glory was taken away as the spotlight was not only on her; winning alone would have been a remarkable and monumental moment in Booker history, however her title is also held by a white woman of immense literary prowess across the world. Atwood didn't need the prize to be recognised as a remarkable novelist, and I felt her winning signalled a sense of obligation from the Booker judges, as though they couldn't possibly allow another writer to succeed against Atwood. Girl, Woman, Other may not have been a debut novel, but it was what Evaristo represented that I felt was lost in the joint-awarding of the prize. However, it is warming to see that this year eight of the 13 books long listed are debuts, and showcase authors who cannot rely on a pre-set expectation that encourages their fans to buy their next book. This perhaps highlights a shift away from awarding well-established authors. Many debut writers have lost their opportunity to promote their books through book tours, literary events and bookshop signings due to the public health crisis, so it is pleasing to see that the prize is recognising the work of the talented debutants.


The intersection of novelists from different nationalities, as well as showcasing a variety of debutants and topics, is heartwarming, and suggests the Booker is, like many other institutions, beginning to recognise the range and diversity of literature that exists. The prize holds incredible prestige and power, and by showcasing a diverse range of publications from a variety of backgrounds, it will encourage people who fear lack of representation within the publishing industry that they have just as much of a chance to achieve the prize as their white, male counterparts.


2020 may be the year the panel disrupts the lack of representation the Booker has been previously criticised for. But we will have to wait for the shortlist to be announced to see if the Booker is committed to maintaining diversity and representation, or whether it will prove itself to be a space for recognising white, male authors alone.



Sources:


Words are all we have.

 - Samuel Beckett

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World of Words 

By Isabelle Osborne