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Pithy, patterns, reactions

Pithy, patterns, reactions

Reactions to the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist have been coming in thick and fast and, so far, they can be broken down into pithy phrases. Those that dominate are: “diverse”, “four debuts”, “women dominate”, and “no Mantel”. Commentators always look for patterns in the judges’ choices and this year they have decided that this is a shortlist that reflects the times – the most varied in memory in terms of gender and author ethnicity, the most inexperienced in terms of backlists, and the most eye-raising in terms of who didn’t make the cut.


At the shortlist announcement, the chair of judges, Margaret Busby, gave a robust defence of the need for diversity: it matters, she said, that there are “opportunities to see culture and creativity from different perspectives. Each of us makes judgments through the prism of who we are and what we have learned or internalised. That’s why diversity has always been important. Diversity is reality.” This was not something imposed on the judging process, she said, but something reflected in the 162 novels that were submitted. “The scope of this year’s books,” thought Busby, “has allowed us to luxuriate in skilful storytelling and to be surprised by what unheard voices have to articulate.”


It may be invidious to discuss who isn’t on the list as much as who is, but it is a sign of Hilary Mantel’s status that her exclusion came as such a surprise. One of the judges, Lee Child, gave a brisk summary of the panel’s thinking: “It is an absolutely wonderful novel, there’s no question about it,” he said of The Mirror and the Light. “It’s a trilogy which will live forever. But as good as it was, there were some books which were better.”


Another judge, Sameer Rahim, confirmed that their choices resonated beyond the boundary of the page. “What unites these books,” he said, “is the idea of the individual living under intense pressure – whether personal, societal or from the state.” And that’s something we can all understand. The novels also raise questions about how to cope with that pressure: “What happens when it seems all hope is gone: can you preserve your humanity, is love still possible? No easy answers are provided to these questions, but it has been fascinating to see how the authors have, in their different ways, tackled them.”


The judges also revealed some of the oddities and benefits of undertaking an already gruelling process in the even more gruelling circumstances we find currently ourselves in. They were, for example, forced to hold their meetings by Zoom rather than in person, and it made for global and varied gatherings. Lee Child is based at his ranch in Wyoming, Emily Wilson is in Philadelphia, the others are in London. Sameer Rahim’s new baby would photobomb meetings, and defuse tensions: “We’d all be mid-war, some Cromwellian fight over a book, and suddenly Sameer’s baby’s lovely head would pop up and we’d all just melt,” recalls Lemn Sissay. Wilson’s puppy – a poodle mix called Pepper – played the same UN peacekeeping role. Busby meanwhile enjoyed being able to see who smokes, and they could also check out each other’s décor, a highlight being Child’s pair of huge yellow pencils that could only be wielded by a colossus with a literary bent. Rahim had a refreshing take on the whole process: “At a time when you couldn’t really see anyone, what I found great was being able to take a book every evening and get to know someone,” he said. “It was like a blind date: sometimes great, sometimes not so great, sometimes indifferent. It was replacement socialising.”