Booker prize chumps

The inside line on the book world

Literary Review

Maybe, said Peter Florence, the chair of this year’s Booker Prize judges, the panel had been roused to insurrection by the Extinction Rebellion protesters massed in the streets of London as they made their choice. Maybe that spirit of iconoclasm empowered them to break Booker law and award the prize to not one, but two novelists.

Hmm. That sounds like a somewhat romantic way of describing things, and it seems particularly unlikely that the jury — whom the Booker foundation customarily treat in sybaritic fashion to make up for the avalanche of books they’re expected to read — had to chain themselves to a statue of Iris Murdoch to make their point.

But when joint winners Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo were announced, it certainly gave the prize’s administrators a headache, disrupting the military precision with which the entire campaign is planned. Indeed, the prize’s literary director, Gaby Wood, had spent much of the day trying to talk them out of it and insisting that the rulebook meant they had to make a choice. It was to no avail.

Meanwhile, over on Twitter, debate got going before the Guildhall had begun to absorb the shock and turn its attention to the petits fours, one of the meatiest bones of contention being that Evaristo, the first black woman to win the prize, was forced to share it. And anyway, the arguments continued, wasn’t Atwood’s win for The Testaments really an acknowledgement that she should have got it for The Handmaid’s Tale? (Instead, Kingsley Amis waltzed up to the podium.)

Excluded from the judging chamber, Trapnel couldn’t possibly comment, into the world, saw an infinitesimal proportion of the publicity that The Testaments enjoyed, and before the prize had sold just short of 4,000 copies, a number about to rise sharply.

 

Another country, another pair of prizewinners. Reputation management firms might consider sending their business cards to the Swedish Academy, who have just made a pig’s ear of awarding the 2018 and 2019 Nobel prizes in literature. It was a double-hander because last year’s award was postponed following accusations of sexual harassment and financial impropriety made against the husband of an Academy member. Fast forward, and the belated announcement of Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk as 2018 laureate met with widespread pleasure and approbation. But the news that Austria’s Peter Handke had won this year’s prize cast a long shadow: his support of Slobodan Milosevic, at whose funeral he gave a homily, and his views on the massacre at Srebrenica are shocking and intolerable to many. But not, apparently, to the lofty academicians of Stockholm, who consider their literary judgments in a vacuum, divorced from history and politics, and insulated from a sense of shame.

 

To Cheltenham, where the literary festival celebrated its seventieth birthday and the likes of Ian McEwan, Jung Chang, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Louis Theroux and Lemn Sissay took to the marquee stages. It will come as little surprise to hear that John Humphrys was on irascible form, made even worse when he mistakenly picked up the wrong bag from the green room and didn’t realise until he was halfway down the motorway.

But the climax of the festival was the appearance on stage of Debbie Harry, in town to promote her memoir, Face It. With any sniff of a ticket long since vanished and groupies clustered in readiness, Blondie took to the stage with band member Chris Stein and interviewer Rob Roth, who had a hand in creating the book. It might fairly be said that Roth had not got the measure of his audience, who were not perhaps as punk as he might have liked. His interview — rambling, random and with only a passing connection to what the punters had come to see — elicited little in the way of response from Harry and Stein and prompted sections of the audience to head home early. Which all goes to show that writers, even the most self-proclaimed naughty ones, tend to turn up to their readings, deliver the goods, sign their books and go home, perhaps pocketing an egg sandwich and a bottle of beer for later. Rock stars and their entourages, alas, cannot be relied upon to do the same.

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