• Good Grief: On the 2023 Booker Prize

    Ryan Chapman

    Winter 2024

    A week after the 2022 Booker Prize award ceremony, Rishi Sunak became the first British Indian to be appointed Prime Minister. He was the third PM in as many months. This milestone received a shrugged acknowledgement from my Sri Lankan uncles back in Minnesota, whose enthusiasm for a statesman from the subcontinent was tempered by the Conservative Party’s hot streak of self-owns. For my part, I took umbrage at Sunak’s CV: Americans know that marrying an heiress (John Kerry, John McCain) and skipping through the Goldman-to-government turnstile (Hank Paulson, Steve Mnuchin) is our thing.

    Two months later, his boss’s youngest son Harry released a ghostwritten tell-all, breaking sales records for a memoir. It became the fastest-selling nonfiction title in the United Kingdom, and globally moved three million units in its first week alone. For comparison, only two Booker winners have scaled such capitalist heights: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

    And then in May, Harry’s dad finally got that callback. The coronation of King Charles III cost an estimated 100 million dollars—four times his mum’s, even adjusted for inflation—with a guest list that included surprise monarchists like Nick Cave and Katy Perry. The peaked septuagenarian cosplayed himself into parody earnestly and glacially. Unfortunately, we never got Martin Amis’s take on the whole boondoggle: the writer passed away on May 19 and was knighted by the new king a month later. (Since posthumous knighthoods are verboten, Charles backdated Amis’s to May 18.) Amis would have appreciated being honored by the very man with whom he argued the 1989 fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie; Charles did not rush to Sir Salman’s defense.

    Last year’s Booker went to Shehan Karunatilaka for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Karunatilaka is the second Sri Lankan recipient, following Michael Ondaatje who won for The English Patient in 1992. (Even then, Ondaatje was named cowinner with Barry Unsworth, the author of Sacred Hunger.) Ondaatje’s novel is still beautiful and affecting. As is Anil’s Ghost, his consideration of the Sri Lankan civil war, which shares a setting with Maali Almeida and none of its tone. Karunatilaka’s win was heartening, and his globe-trotting press tour highly entertaining. The man gives good copy, both figuratively and literally—like Rushdie, he once worked in advertising. Tara K. Menon wrote in these pages that 2022 was a rare instance of the best shortlisted book winning the prize, a fact supported by anyone familiar with its history. Possession’s A. S. Byatt said, “I’ve won it and judged it and it’s a lottery.” Hilary Mantel, also a Booker judge and (two-time) recipient: “Even the most correct jury goes in for horsetrading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.”

    Perhaps to dispel such charges, 2023 chair Esi Edugyan has boasted of the panel’s passion and comity. She might also be frustrating the oddsmakers with public statements like “There’s no such thing as a ‘Booker book’.” (Bettors initially favored Tan Twan Eng’s The House of Doors, which didn’t make the shortlist.) The Booker judges are culled from across literature, academia, and pop culture. Edugyan, a twice-shortlisted Canadian novelist, is the author of Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black. She’s joined by the actors Robert Webb, who Americans may know from the cringe marathon Peep Show and the sketch comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look, and Adjoa Andoh, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and narrated several audiobooks—but likely better known for her role in Bridgerton. This year’s panel is rounded out by Costa Award-winning poet Mary Jean Chan and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro.

    Ryan Chapman is the author of the novel Riots I Have Known (Simon & Schuster 2019) and The Audacity, which Soho Press will publish in April 2024. He teaches at Vassar College and the Sewanee School of Letters.

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