Nobel and Booker prizes 2019: You had one job!

by Sunita

The Nobel Prize for Literature was announced last week and the Booker Prize for Fiction was announced yesterday. Both organizations awarded two winners, for different reasons. The Nobel double award was made up of the 2019 prize and the delayed choice of the 2018 prize, the latter having been suspended because of the discovery of corruption and worse on the part of (some members of) the committee and its allied participants. The Booker two-fer resulted from the jury’s inability to reach a decision on a single winner despite having an odd number of jurists, which rules out the possibility of a tie vote. Its decided, against both the stated rules and the exhortations of the Booker organization, to flout their terms of reference. Good times all around.

The Nobel committee awarded the 2018 prize to Olga Tokarczuk, who seems eminently deserving of the recognition. So are a lot of other authors, but that’s always the case. And hey, if the Nobel crowd can get the number of women up to 15 by choosing Tokarczuk, I’m all for that.

But then there’s the 2019 winner, Peter Handke. I have read none of his written work, although I’ve seen some of the films for which he’s written the screenplays, and they are superb. But in the Year of Our Lord 2019, why are we giving an award to someone who spoke sympathetically at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral? Who was skeptical that massacres of Muslims by Serbs in Bosnia were actual massacres, and posited that there may not have been a genocide? It’s one thing to separate the art from the artist to recognize great art, it’s another to elevate and celebrate the artist for an entire body of writing, which is what the Nobel does.

The Booker jury’s decision is simpler and less, well, stomach-churning. A massively popular and critically acclaimed novelist, one who has been frequently mentioned for the Nobel, was recognized for a sequel novel which no one believes is as good as the original (which itself was shortlisted but did not win in its Booker year). She shares the prize with Bernardine Evaristo, whose book has been widely acclaimed by critics and Booker-focused readers, and who is highly regarded but not that well known by the reading public (much like Anna Burns, last year’s winner).

I really don’t know what to think about all of this. Both sets of decisions suggest to my outsider view that there is a lot of logrolling going on, i.e., you vote my choice and I’ll vote yours. Or in the Nobel case, 2018 gets the “modern” choice, 2019 gets the “old school” choice. Come to think of it, that’s doubly ironic since the 2018 committee was the disbanded one and the 2019 committee is the reformed one. As for the Booker, we once again have the more overtly literary novel twinned with the more overtly popular-leaning one, although the Atwood is past merely popular and into juggernaut territory. The selection is a cousin to the 50-year Booker win of The English Patient, with its film-influenced popular vote, but scaled down to TV-miniseries and yearly award size.

As I said in comments on my previous post, there weren’t any novels this year that I fervently hoped wouldn’t win the Booker. But a jury that is unable to do its job is not a jury I can really respect. As the meme goes, you had one job! There are always more deserving candidates than slots to hand out. Always. And having to read 150+ books in a year is not an excuse.

I’ve served on a few awards committees for my discipline, one of which was for a major book prize. I think we had 130+ entries and a few months in which to read them. I remember having to have books sent to Europe so that I would get them in time (which also meant lugging them back to the US, thankyouverymuch). Unlike the Booker, we didn’t claim to read every word of every submission. With political science books and the nomination system employed, there are plenty of books that can be excluded relatively quickly. But it still means reading dozens of books in a relatively short time and then revisiting a subset once the committee deliberations begin. And guess what? There were at least a dozen possible winners (our informal longlist) which we then whittled down to a handful. The book that won was deserving; we thought so, obviously, but so did a lot of our professional colleagues. But we could have chosen half a dozen others, including the “it” book of the half-decade, and that would have been fine too. (We didn’t choose the “it” book for scholarly reasons, and in retrospect I’m quite proud of that decision.)

All this is to say that I generally cut awards committees a lot of slack. There are so many factors that play a role, and each jury has its own individual chemistry. But even granting that, across disparate juries and committes, one commonality endures: we have one job, and that is to pick a winner. And no amount of fluent verbiage can excuse not doing your job. While I’m at it, let me also point out that the literary director and the chair of the Booker Foundation board both told the jury chairman that they could not violate the rule that required naming one winner only (the rule was passed after the 1992 decision). But the jury held firm while the administrators caved. So the latter also failed to do their one job.

Needless to say there are many stories about this, in fact the decision is getting more publicity than the winning books. I don’t have much to say about the winners themselves, since I haven’t read them (I will get to the Evaristo, which is on my TBR). But the award choices over the past twelve months, stretching back to the Man Booker International, the Pulitzer, and the Giller, have reinforced my growing belief that the awards themselves are less a selection of the best of a particular year and more of a distributional exercise, at best selecting among more or less equally deserving books on the basis of non-literary criteria (including “they’ve already won enough elsewhere or will win a different prize for sure”) and at worst selecting inferior books to fulfill a non-literary purpose.

I know the reviewing and evaluating process has subjective components. No two people are always going to agree on what makes a particular book good or bad; indeed, that’s why we have opposite-taste trusted readers. But there are also objective components, not least of which is “did this book achieve what it was trying to do?” And in the case of a major literary prize, the book should not only achieve that at a high level, it should in some way speak to what makes the novel form important, vibrant, and alive. It doesn’t have to be written in a single sentence, or lack quotation marks, or have some other stereotypically “literary” attribute. But it should make you think about literature. That’s my hill and I’m dying on it. And at least two of the award winners I’ve read over this past year do not do that while books on the same shortlist do.

This is not about identity politics; some of the books I think should have won were also written by members of historically underrepresented groups. And it is not a complaint about today, but a complaint about awards for creative endeavors. I went back and looked at the Booker shortlists over the years, and I quickly picked out half a dozen times where the winning book was clearly not the best example of the literary craft, where non-winning books have continued to be considered superior to the winners. There is no world in which The Life of Pi is more Booker-worthy than that year’s novels by William Trevor, Sarah Water, and Tim Winton. In the year that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won for Heat and Dust, excellent novels by David Lodge and Robertson Davies didn’t even make the shortlist. Really? I could go on, but you get the point.

Prizes for creative work are misguided even when the choices are ones that make sense. Last year was a banner year for my tastes because Milkman won the Booker and The Long Take won the Goldsmith. And I’m immensely pleased that Anna Burns has reaped the rewards of being a Booker winner. But it still doesn’t validate the system, which elevates idiosyncratic decision-making to the level of an objective truth.

My plan going forward: I’ll continue pay attention to longlists and shortlists. I’ll note who won the award and move on. I’ll avoid the horse-race discussions and ill-informed (by definition, since they aren’t party to the process) speculation about why certain winners were chosen. I understand that for some aficionados it’s a highly enjoyable parlor game, but it’s not for me, since I find betting on cultural prizes distasteful and degrading. And I’ll keep watching the publishing lists of small presses, where interesting and innovative writing is being nurtured and/or translated into English. I don’t want to only read old classics and whatever is still on my TBR. But I don’t need to be au courant with the latest industry gossip, which is what book award talk basically is now. In the interests of expanding the reach of literature we’ve commodified creative culture in ways that aren’t good for it. And worst of all, it’s not even working! I watched the live Facebook stream of the Booker announcement and I was one of about 1200 viewers, according to the number on my screen. That’s less than half the number of people who were at the John Prine concert I went to Sunday. Which was awesome, by the way. See him while you still can, he’s a true American treasure.