The rule of six

The Booker this week caused a minor fluctuation in the space-time continuum with the unveiling of a shortlist variously described as diverse, fresh, and baffling. The shock, of course, was the absence of twice-winner Hilary Mantel—short of announcing Robert Galbraith’s Troubled Blood as a late entrant, it is difficult to imagine how the judges could have delivered a better talking point in a year when the prize will need all the chatter it can muster.

The numbers are as follows: six books, of which four are débuts, four by women, four from authors of colour, four are over 40, and four are published by independent presses. Three of the shortlisted authors were born in the US—a further two now live there. One, Tsitsi Dangarembga, is currently on bail in her native Zimbabwe. There are no previous winners on the list, and for the first time in 23 years no previous shortlistees either.

The headlines so far have not been kind, “The Booker Prize has abandoned Britain” wrote the Telegraph, while the Times said there had been a call for the prize to be judged blind (though in truth no calls were made, and no bias declared). 

Concerns were also raised by the dominance of American writers—an “unfortunate gimmick”, said Caroline Michel of PFD; while Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander questioned whether the judges were privileging the new over literary excellence. Retailers were a touch more upbeat. There is much now to hand-sell; the shortlisted books have sold just 10% of the total of the left-behinds (Mantel, dominant, of course).

The Booker remains a big deal—both as a validation of the work UK publishing does, but also as a stimulus to sales. Most recently, as literary fiction has become harder to sell publishers have tended to focus on the latter. Most too remain unconvinced about letting American writers in, with this year’s shortlist sure to prove catnip for the naysayers—the Times literary editor Robbie Millen has already said he has now changed his mind.

I have some sympathy with these arguments. The Booker is a super-conductor for winning authors, and would be wise to remain so—if it loses Middle England, one publisher once told me, then it’ll cease to be relevant. But under director Gaby Wood, the prize now rows in its own direction. The mission, as Wood said at the virtual press conference, is to broaden, not narrow, what is considered excellent, and juries are appointed with that in mind. It is no surprise that Wood is relishing taking this year’s ceremony outside the confines of a Guildhall dinner.

The Booker does not arrive each year context-free: it reflects us, and we are reflected back by its glare. Each year will take a new turn, and there may be missteps, as happened in 2019 and in 2011 (readability). In truth, something important is happening. Diversity is reality, said this year’s chair of the judges (publisher Margaret Busby). It is possible that she meant it both as a statement and a challenge. Either way, we can react to the shortlist by focusing on who is missing, or on who is now included. I recommend the latter.