The Booker Prize joint win: A dilution of the award

  • Books
  • Thursday, 17 Oct 2019

The Booker Prize for Fiction broke its own rules to give the award to both Margaret Atwood's 'The Testaments' and Bernardine Evaristo's 'Girl, Woman, Other'. Photo: Reuters

What is the point of having a prize that recognises the best of something if you decide to give it to two people?

The Booker Prize for Fiction, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, broke its own rules on Oct 14 to give the award to both Margaret Atwood's The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other.

Despite several hours' debate, the judges were not able to choose between the two and asked the organisers three times if they could give a joint award, succeeding on the third attempt.

Certainly both these books are well-deserving of the prize, which recognises the "best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland". The judges' position is unenviable.

But to have two winners sends mixed messages and risks adulterating the momentous push of this particular award.

Both of these books stand for very different things. Atwood is a literary giant at the top of her game. Her bestselling The Testaments, riding on the cult status of its 1985 predecessor The Handmaid's Tale, has already made its mark as one of the year's biggest releases. It is also one of those rare sequels that achieves the miracle of living up to its hype.

Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, with its free-flowing style and 12 protagonists, mostly black and female, is a joyous ode to multiplicity. It pushes diversity in fiction to a new level. It is ground-breaking in a way that The Testaments is not, because The Testaments, for its many fine points, is still building on its iconic predecessor - which, it must be noted, was also shortlisted for the Booker but did not win.

Evaristo is the first black woman to win the prize, and having to share a prize inevitably means diluting it.

It is interesting to examine the political implications in setting these two writers beside one another. The Handmaid's Tale has often been criticised for its "white feminism", appropriating for its white characters the real-life oppression experienced by women of colour, such as enslaved African-American women, while sidelining minorities.

Does balancing Atwood's win with Evaristo's answer these criticisms? And would that not detract from the merit of Evaristo's own achievement? Girl, Woman, Other is, among many things, a brilliant denial of tokenism.

One thinks of the other literary award recently given out to two writers, the Nobel Prize in Literature, although in this case the double award was because it was not given out last year due to a sexual harassment scandal engulfing the jury.

Last week, it was controversially awarded to two writers who are, politically speaking, polar opposites. Polish author and activist Olga Tokarczuk has come under fire from Poland's nationalists. Austrian writer Peter Handke has been decried for downplaying the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims and lauding late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was tried for war crimes.

Happily, Atwood, Evaristo and their feminist works are more aligned than not. Still, such oscillations within a single prize cycle make one question if the prize knows what it stands for, rather than settling for a politically correct balancing act.

This is not the first time the Booker prize has been split. The rules disallowing a joint win were enforced after the 1992 award was given to Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger.

That particular cage match was finally decided last year when The English Patient was awarded the Golden Man Booker, crowning it the best work of fiction from the last 50 years of the prize, an award partly decided by public vote.

The judges of this year's Booker have likewise deferred their choice to history, which by dint of sheer stature is likely to be on Atwood's side. But posterity should not eclipse Evaristo. - The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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