• On the 2019 Booker Prize

    Merritt Moseley

    Winter 2020

    The 2019 Booker Prize season was for women authors. At every stage of the selection, books by women dominated; and when, on October 14, the final decision was announced, the judges had chosen Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo to share the prize for their novels The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other respectively. The last shared Booker was awarded in 1992, after which split decisions were forbidden by rule. The 2019 jury flouted the regulations and did it anyway.

    This year’s other change was a new sponsor. Originally the Booker McConnell Prize, for eighteen years the Man Booker Prize, it is now simply the Booker Prize, which is what it has always been called anyway. With the Man Group withdrawing in summer of 2019, its new sponsor is the Crankstart Foundation, created by a billionaire venture capitalist, Sir Michael Moritz, and his wife. That the prize was not renamed the Crankstart Booker Prize must have relieved everyone.

    The first step in the process of awarding the 2019 Booker took place on July 23. It carried some pleasant surprises for those still vexed by the inclusion of Americans (two of whom have won the prize since their admission in 2014), for devotees of experimental and difficult fiction, and for second chances given to former winners. In the latter category were Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. Rushdie took the prize in 1981 and was shortlisted in 1983, 1988, and 1995; Atwood won in 2000 and had been shortlisted in 1986—for The Handmaid’s Tale, to which this year’s The Testaments is a sequel—as well as 1989, 1996, and 2003. Oyinkan Braithwaite, author of My Sister, the Serial Killer, was the only debut novelist to make the cut.

    Lucy Ellmann was America’s sole representative, and perhaps barely qualifies; US-born, she has lived in England her entire adult life. The criteria for eligibility were loosened beginning in 2014, from the historic “the best novel in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen, and published in the UK” to any long-form work in English published in the UK or Ireland. This change was usually taken as a concession to Americans; but the longlist this year included a work by Valeria Luiselli, from Mexico, and Elif Shafak, from Turkey, now eligible under the new rules. If any non-UK literature dominated, it was that of Nigeria, with two Nigerian authors on the longlist in addition to Bernardine Evaristo, who is a British-born Anglo-Nigerian. There were eight women and five men on the longlist.

    On September 13, the thirteen-title longlist was pared to six which, along with Atwood and Evaristo, included Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport; Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities; Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte; and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Obioma’s novel is his sophomore effort, while Ellmann, Evaristo, and Shafak have large bodies of work. For the first time, the list contained no white men.

    This winnowing, like the earlier one that began with 151 nominated books, was the work of a panel of judges consisting of Liz Calder, a former publisher; Xiaolu Guo, a novelist and filmmaker; Afua Hirsch, a writer and broadcaster;

    Merritt Moseley is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and has been covering the Man Booker Prize for the Sewanee Review since 1993.

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