Submitted by The Booker Prizes on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 12:28
The addition of the thriller writer Lee Child to the list of The Booker Prize judges for 2020 has stirred a great deal of comment. The author himself is happy to be part of the whole thing and happy too to acknowledge that he’s not traditional judging fodder. In a recent interview he noted that this year, “Instead of five literary novelists talking about literary novels, we’ve got a classicist [Emily Wilson], a playwright [Lemn Sissay], a publisher [Margaret Busby]. It’s been carefully constructed as a multi-angle scrutiny and I was happy to be chosen, I guess, as the commercial fiction representative, which, I think, is a valid perspective to be looking at.” Of course the other judge, Sameer Rahim, is a literary novelist – author of Asghar and Zahra – which completes the perspectives.
Child also described how his working day is based around “five prime hours” in the afternoons. Those 100 million-copy selling Jack Reacher novels don’t write themselves so he preps with, he says, about 30 to 40 mugs of coffee every day. “It’s good for you in moderation but I don’t do anything in moderation,” he says. “I come from a family that was so cautious and sensible. It seemed to me that it was all about preserving yourself to have more of this miserable existence. My bargain was: I’ll have more fun in 60 years than you’ll have in 90.” With that amount of caffeine coursing through his veins it’s amazing he is not shaking too much to have any fun at all.
Bernardine Evaristo, one of the current Booker Prize laureates, has been talking about perceptions of Britishness. Winning the prize, she says, meant that Girl, Woman, Other has, for example, made it rapidly to America: “it means it has been launched in a way that it wouldn’t have necessarily been launched before, and that people are paying attention to it”. As a result, her characters, “12 primarily black British women – some of whom are on the queer spectrum, and some are radical political animals – are getting into America.” She hopes their exposure is “broadening Americans’ understandings of what Britain is. I think very little of our literature has crossed over there in any big way, so I’m amused by the idea that the book is opening Americans up to the plurality of British society.”
Might this be a turning point for John le Carré? The doyen of espionage writers has made it a life-long rule not to be submitted or indeed accept literary prizes. For years some people have asked why Le Carré has never been Booker Prize nominated but the answer lies not with the judges but with the author telling his publishers not to submit his books. In 2011 he was added to the list of nominees for the Man Booker International Prize, which then was awarded for a body of work rather than a single book: Le Carré was not happy, saying he did not “compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn”. Now though he has just accepted Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize, though he has donated the £76,000 prize money to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières. Does this mean perhaps that a Booker Prize nomination would no longer be met with instant withdrawal?
In response to the film industry’s reluctance to nominate female directors for the Oscars or Baftas, it has been noted that the literary world is less reticent about acknowledging women. One writer noted that “Of the 10 best-selling books of the past decade, eight were written by women,” while pointing out that the big prizes of 2019-2020 also had a feminine stamp. Among America’s National Book Critics Circle finalists, four out of five nominees for Autobiography are women, two out of five for Biography, three out of five for Criticism, three out of five for Fiction. The winners of the country’s National Book Awards for fiction and nonfiction were both women. But, most notable of all of course, was the fact that two women – not just a measly one – won The 2019 Booker Prize. Not that this means everything is tickety-boo – as the writer also pointed out: “This feminising trend would have to continue for roughly 2,000 years to balance out the canon.”