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Books ignore the lockdown

Books ignore the lockdown

A little bit of history was made on Thursday when, for the first time in the long story of The Booker Prizes, the announcement of the shortlist of the International Booker Prize was made not to a roomful of celebrants in central London but online, to anyone, anywhere in the world who wanted to log on and listen. Fiammetta Rocco, administrator of the International Booker Prize, acknowledged the unnerving nature of the times but accentuated the positive. “We are a worldful rather just a roomful of people,” she said, “still together in spirit, creativity and more than anything in our love of reading.” Indeed, books – their writing, translating and reading – are more important than ever: “Literature is the supreme act of empathy, as crucial to the survival of the human spirit as water or air.”

Ted Hodgkinson, chair of judges, echoed these sentiments and pointed out how, strangely for a solitary activity, reading “Takes us out of our isolation towards one another.” He went on to hail his fellow judges as a “community of readers” and said that their brief was to find “exceptional books for exceptional times”. Usually, as with a papal enclave, the judges are locked in a room together until a decision has been made, this time the judges were on opposite sides of the globe. “Of course there’s no substitute for being in the same room to discuss intricate matters of translation,” acknowledged Hodgkinson, “but in the end it didn’t matter that we were as far apart as LA and Bangalore, there was enough rapport and mutual respect to traverse the distance and overcome any technical glitches,” he said.

The shortlist having been finalised he pointed out that each of the novels, “Restlessly reinvents received narratives” and reinforces the fact that fiction is “an art form rooted in dialogue”. It wasn’t all fine words, however; Hodgkinson, live streaming his words from his own home, also pointed to another first: “This is the first time a chair of the International Booker Prize has announced the shortlist from a chair in a one-year old’s bedroom.”

It is always interesting to see the first reactions to a shortlist announcement, all the more interesting in the case of the International Booker Prize because, with so much English-language fiction available, few readers by this point will have worked their way through the longlist. The Guardian focused on the tender years of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: “Rijneveld, a rising star in Dutch literature, is 28 – slightly older than British author Daisy Johnson was when she was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2018, age 27.” And noted that the author “identifies as male and uses the pronouns they/them”. The New York Times also picked up on gender, pointing out that Rijneveld aside, there are four women writers on the shortlist (“Women Dominate Booker International Prize Shortlist”). The Bookseller went for a publishing angle – “Indies dominate 2020 International Booker Prize shortlist” – noting that Fitzcarraldo, Charco Press, Europa and Faber & Faber all have books on the shortlist. The Daily Mail meanwhile fixed its gimlet eye on Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season: “Novel containing just eight short paragraphs and 'littered with profanities' is shortlisted for International Booker Prize”. The Sydney Morning Herald on the other hand trumpeted the success of an Australian adopted daughter, Shokoofeh Azar: “Iranian refugee shortlisted for International Booker Prize”. This scrambling to get a handle on the shortlist is only to be expected. Few readers other than the judges themselves will have an overview of the meat, nitty-gritty, style and language of their shortlisted books. As the weeks progress towards the winner announcement on 19 May, however, expect more discussion of the books themselves.