September 17, 2020
Booker Prize Moves Online; Digital Tomes Abound
by Mike Lindgren
The famed Booker Prize, like everything else, has moved online this year. The prestigious award, which has a long history of skulduggery, controversy, and fractiousness, has been a relatively sedate affair so far, at least through the nominating process.
The Prize Committee took a predictably sombre approach to the disruption posed by Covid-19. “With any luck, as we find new ways to communicate during this shared crisis,” wrote Booker director Gaby Wood, “we’ll forge connections that will endure past its peak, and introduce more characters — real and imagined — to populate our altered lives.”
Like everyone else, the judges were forced to convene on Zoom for their deliberations. Judge Margaret Busby told the New York Times that—again, like the rest of us— “she liked the glimpses into the other judges’ lives that came with” the novel technology, and the Times reported the unfamiliar interpellation of children and pets into the august proceedings. And the judges were forced to rely on PDFs of the contestants’ novels—another largely unwelcomed development.
This year’s shortlist:
- The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld Publications)
- This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber)
- Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)
- The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate Books)
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, Pan Macmillan)
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)
The list includes four debut novels and marks a welcome switch from previous years dominated by
old white guys well-established authors. Real Life is about a gay black man navigating campus life, while the author of This Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga, was arrested in July for taking part in anti-corruption protests in her native Zimbabwe.
A notable omission, for what it’s worth: Hilary Mantel did not complete a Booker sweep for her trilogy about Renaissance England, as The Mirror and the Light, the concluding volume in the trilogy, did not make the shortlist.
The Booker has not been without its share of controversy. Last year’s decision to split the award between two authors, for the first time ever, raised hackles. And who can forget the kerfuffle of 1980, when Anthony Burgess haughtily refused even to attend the ceremony unless he was guaranteed to win? Or the time A. L. Kennedy called the prize “a pile of crooked nonsense“?
This year’s winner, in this more sober age, will be announced in a gala Zoom ceremony on November 7.
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.