• On the 2022 Booker Prize

    Tara K. Menon

    Winter 2023

    Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo (Penguin, Viking)

    The Trees by Percival Everett (Influx, Graywolf)

    Treacle Walker by Alan Garner (Fourth Estate)

    The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka (Sort of Books, W. W. Norton)

    Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (Faber, Grove)

    Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Penguin, Random House)

    2022 has not been a good year for England. It seemed impossible for the country to do worse than the racist, misogynistic Eton mess of a prime minister who partied through lockdown while the virus killed more than one hundred thousand British people, but then, no one had anticipated he would be replaced by a cheese enthusiast Thatcher stan. Mere days after the transfer of actual power, the death of the old lady who models for banknotes initiated the long overdue transfer of symbolic power to her seventy-three-year-old son. The new king might have inherited the throne and fortune of his “darling mama,” but he appears not to have inherited any of her tight-lipped poise. The only appropriate word to describe the ten days of mourning, and the fawning coverage of it on both sides of the Atlantic, is embarrassing. The death of the queen inspired a nostalgia so fierce that the state instinctively resorted to the tactics that it had perfected during the years the British were ruthlessly subjugating people abroad—censoring the mildest criticism and arresting peaceful protestors. The other Liz, alongside yet another Etonian dipstick, gave the English people less than a week to recover from their aggressive mourning before she unleashed a financial plan that plunged the economy into chaos. Before I could finish this essay, Liz Truss fired Kwasi Kwarteng, her best friend and coconspirator, in a desperate attempt to save her job. Despite her best efforts, she became the shortest serving prime minister in the country’s history. For an incredible few days, it looked possible that Boris—the personification of the decline of the British Empire—would return from his luxury Caribbean vacation and get his old job back. So dire is the state of the nation that, at the time of writing, there has been collective relief that a Prada-clad ex-Goldman banker with all the personality of a cardboard box (who, thanks to his wife, is a quarter of a billion pounds richer than King Charles) will be taking the reins instead. I imagine, but cannot be sure, that he will still be in power when this goes to print.

    Amidst all this, it seems hardly consequential that the Booker Prize also seems to be losing faith in its own authority. Yet, here we are. Even though the Empire crumbled decades ago, the Booker Prize, one of the jewels in England’s soft-power crown, remains one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world. There are good reasons for this reputation: since its founding in 1969, winners have included: V. S. Naipaul, J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Hilary Mantel. That is, some of the best writers in the world. Theirs are recognizable names, at least partly because they won the Booker Prize. The Prize changes fortunes. Overnight, the winning book can jump to the top of bestseller lists and become the most requested title at libraries around the world. Obscure writers wake up the next day as literary stars. (When Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize for The Promise last year, he sold more copies in the three months after the announcement than in the seventeen years he has published in the United Kingdom.) Whether we like it or not, the Booker Prize has power.

    Here are the facts about this year’s prize. From 169 novels that were published between October 1, 2021, and September 30, 2022, and submitted for consideration, the judges (Neil MacGregor, Shahidha Bari, Helen Castor, M. John Harrison, and Alain Mabanckou) announced a thirteen-book longlist (the Booker dozen) on July 26, 2022, and then a six-book shortlist on September 6, 2022. None of the three debuts on the longlist made it to the shortlist. The presence of six Americans on the longlist stoked the now longstanding fear inspired by a 2014 rule change that Americans would dominate the Booker, but (thankfully) only two of the six made it to the shortlist. The other four shortlisted authors are English, Irish, Zimbabwean, and Sri Lankan. Three of them are men, three are women. Three of the books are published by independent presses; two of these (Influx Press and Sort of Books) appear for the first time. The six novels are set in five different countries across four continents at different times: 1980s Ireland (Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These), midcentury Cheshire (Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker), 2018 Mississippi (Percival Everett’s The Trees), 1989 Sri Lanka (Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida), 2017–2019 Zimbabwe (NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory), and present-day New York and Maine (Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!). Bulawayo has been shortlisted before (for her debut novel We Need New Names, based on a Caine Prize-winning short story), and Strout has been longlisted before (for My Name is Lucy Barton). Historical events provide the backdrop for four of these novels: the Sri Lankan Civil War (Seven Moons), Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries (Small Things), the coup that overthrew Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe (Glory), and America’s history of lynching (The Trees). The other two focus on a divorced couple taking a trip together (Oh William!) and a sickly young boy visited by a rag-and-bone man (Treacle Walker).

    The stated intention of the Booker Prize is to select “the best sustained work of fiction written in English and published in the UK and Ireland” over a single year. The judges are bound by no criteria except this. This raises at least three questions. Is this a worthy goal? Does the Booker Prize actually do this? And finally, should the Booker Foundation be in charge of this mission?

    The answer to the first question—should we be trying to identify the best books at all?—is easy: yes. If you believe in literary merit, as I do, then elevating superior books above the piles that are published in any given year is a worthwhile endeavor. If the idea that there are “superior books” smacks of snobbery, well, then, guilty as charged. Yes, people have different tastes, but the quality of a book is not subjective. Middlemarch simply is better than The Da Vinci Code. Some novels are good, some are just okay, some are life-changingly brilliant, and some are absolute trash. The mission of loudly proclaiming the best book—in order to boost sales and advance careers—is admirable because we want readers, of all kinds and across the world, to read the best literature and also because we want the best writers to continue to write.

    What about the second question: Does the Prize even manage to do its job? Sometimes. The God of Small Things really is sublimely good (and we might not know who Arundhati Roy is if she hadn’t won the Booker crown). But I dare you to tell me that Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger or Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam are even passable novels, let alone the best one published in the English-speaking world in 2008 and 1998, respectively. And what about this year? Both the shortlist and longlist were deeply disappointing. Some books were simply bad—poorly written, poorly constructed—but most were just fine. Not bad, but not great either. In its promise to find the finest fiction published in English, the 2022 committee failed. Instead, the Foundation and the judges seemed driven to please the reading public. They chose bestsellers—including an Oprah’s Book Club pick—famous authors, and, as if they were worried about our attention spans, very short books. They also chose the shortest book ever (Small Things Like These) and the oldest author ever (Garner), and one wonders if the allure of superlatives influenced those decisions. Worse still, the Foundation has embraced social media—both Twitter and Instagram (like any self-respecting millennial, I don’t know what happens on Facebook)—with the enthusiasm of a Boomer who has just discovered the internet. It all reeks of desperation. The only explanation for this down-with-the-kids behavior is that the Foundation, like the Royal Family, is worried about staying relevant. But all this pandering is only counterproductive. When the quality of titles drops as much as it did this year, legitimate doubts start to form about the judgement of the respected committee.  

    This brings us to our third question: Should we be looking to the metropole to tell us what is valuable? Ideally not. It seems less than desirable that the state that looted and murdered, by firearm or famine, half the global population now dictates to those same people which books to read. Now that the former superpower is impersonating an “emerging market country,” it seems especially quaint that they are pretending to retain any cultural supremacy. Yet the alternative may be worse. In a world without the Booker, sales would be the metric for quality, especially because today, the political economy of publishing means that many critics do little else except write ads disguised as reviews. Maybe literary prizes remain our best hope. And whether we like it or not, the Booker Prize still has considerable clout.

    Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is the shortest book ever longlisted for the prize. Keegan is an award-winning short story writer of two collections (Antarctica and Walk the Blue Field) whose long short story “Foster,” originally published in the New Yorker, was later revised and republished as her first novella. There has been some debate about whether Small Things is a long short story or a short novella. Either way, at 114 pages, and in large print, it seems like a stretch to call it a novel.

    The story unfolds over Christmas in 1985, in New Ross, a town in Wexford, Ireland. So cozy is the depiction of the season at the beginning of the book, you feel like you are in the window display at Bergdorf Goodman’s—snow is falling, fires are burning, cakes are baking, carolers are singing. The book, slim and beautifully designed, begs to be stuffed in a stocking. Dickens is the obvious influence (in case the thick descriptions of the season didn’t make it clear enough, Bill Furlong, the novel’s protagonist, asks for a copy of David Copperfield). But soon the differences, in both tone and topic, between this story and the easy, feel-good A Christmas Carol, become clear.

    Furlong, a coal and timber merchant who is happily married and the father of five daughters, is the hardworking, introspective hero of Small Things Like These. His is a story of against-the-odds personal triumph—his unmarried mother had him at sixteen, but, luckily, the rich Protestant widow who employed her as a domestic servant allowed her to raise her son under protection. The entire story is focalized through Bill (we learn almost nothing about what any other character is thinking) and Keegan, with impressive economy, affords him more interiority than the majority of Dickens’s characters.

    For all the warmth and bustle of his Christmas kitchen, and his personal and professional success, Furlong is unsettled. Initially, he can’t place why, although it seems clear that it is because he cannot avoid or ignore the signs of economic deprivation all around him: people emigrating for work, long dole lines, and children so hungry he sees one drinking milk out of a cat’s bowl. Furlong also has suspicions, fueled by local rumors, that something is amiss at the nearby Good Shepherd convent which serves as a laundry for restaurants and hospitals and rich households. An accidental encounter transforms suspicion into knowledge.

    On a routine delivery trip to the convent, Furlong discovers a frail young girl locked in a coal shed. She begs him to ask the nuns about her baby who, she says, has been taken away from her and must be hungry. Furlong has accidentally uncovered the convent’s dirty secret: the women who work there are not students in training but rather “girls of low character” (that is, unmarried women who have fallen pregnant), who are being forced to labor in the laundry as penance. Small Things is about one of the most shameful parts of recent Irish history: the Magdalene Laundries.

    These establishments sound like they belong to the distant past, so it is shocking to learn, in a note Keegan includes at the end of the text, that the last of these closed in 1996. The extent and nature of the crimes committed in the Laundries are still being uncovered, but what is clear is that these were places where women were forced to labor, where children were taken from their mothers without consent, and where both the women and their babies died at astonishingly high rates. In 2021, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes reported that nine thousand children had died in just eighteen of these homes. Some estimates suggest that thousands or tens of thousands of women were enslaved in the Laundries. (Keegan’s book is dedicated to the women and children who spent time in these cruel institutions.)

    It is fair to ask why you would choose to center a man in a story about mother-and-baby homes. One consequence of this artistic decision is that Keegan avoids sensationalizing her sensational subject matter. We barely get a glimpse of the horror of life inside one of these institutions. Even the nuns, the obvious villains of this story, appear only briefly. (The Mother Superior cuts a chilling figure.) The other major effect is to redirect attention from the Irish state and the Catholic Church to the ordinary people of Ireland. Small Things is ultimately a story of individual decisions.

    Furlong’s wife, Eileen, embodies the attitudes of the Irish people. When Furlong tells her that he once saw girls washing the floor of the convent, she asks, “‘What do such things have to do with us? Aren’t our girls well, and minded?’” In Keegan’s telling, the story of the Magdalene Laundries is one of large-scale complicity, the kind that is so common, and often necessary, when states and institutions commit atrocities. It is people like Eileen that are the target of Keegan’s criticism. When the Mother Superior sends Bill home with a Christmas bonus that is clearly a bribe for his silence, Eileen is delighted to have the extra cash. There are no innocent bystanders here.

    Tara K. Menon is an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University.

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