Winning ways

The rule-flouting Booker share for Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo—which will take its place in a long litany of judging controversies over the prize’s history—represented an unalloyed triumph for Penguin Random House, which publishes both authors, and a bittersweet one for Karolina Sutton of Curtis Brown, who agented both books. (Evaristo later moved to Emma Paterson of Aitken Alexander.) It was not such a disaster for the trade either, with booksellers delighted to have two Booker winners to promote.

Elsewhere there was harsh criticism: Atwood’s win bordered on the superfluous—she herself said she didn’t need the attention—while Evaristo’s victory, in an historic moment which saw the first black woman win the Booker, seemed insufficiently celebrated. An incomplete account of the judging process given by Afua Hirsch only served to fan the flames, referring to Atwood’s "titanic" literary legacy; though Booker literary director Gaby Wood was quick to reassure that judges knew it was the individual titles only which were competing.

Previous literary director Ion Trewin relished media controversy as a sign that the prize was as important as ever to the cultural life of the nation. In today’s grimmer climate—with challenges to literary fiction and author earnings, and a political landscape such that Booker Foundation chair Helena Kennedy spoke at the ceremony of how writing offers hope in "dark times"—perhaps the stakes seem too high. Chair Peter Florence said he was inspired by Extinction Rebellion, but in truth it felt more like a fudge and a dodge.

In response, an angry Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press, publisher of Lucy Ellman’s shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, highlighted the demands of being shortlisted for the Booker—notably a £5,000 contribution, no small sum for a tiny independent. The point is well taken: indies take financial risks every day just to publish the work they believe in. Booker could be more flexible in that regard, but either way the quid pro quo is that there is a fair contest between books, not authors.

Yet in awarding the prize to Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, the prize did what many publishers want it to do, and feared it might do no longer after opening up to US authors: highlight a home-grown writer whose work has been admired for decades, but never achieved the readership it deserves. In this, Evaristo’s win builds on that of Anna Burns; in a touching speech at this year’s ceremony, Burns explained what her win had meant after years of struggle: "Worldwide sales, translations, a big readership... An unexpected and wonderful nourishment to me and indicative of the cultural reach of this prize".

On the night, new sponsor Crankshaft was reassuringly unobtrusive; Kennedy, though, hinted at changes to come, saying: "This new stage in our literary journey will offer opportunities to be bolder". Whatever that may turn out to mean, we should cherish the continuing influence of the Booker, our most powerful literary award—controversies and all.