Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo share 201's Booker Prize. Picture: DAVID M. BENETT/DAVE BENETT/GETTY IMAGES
Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo share 201's Booker Prize. Picture: DAVID M. BENETT/DAVE BENETT/GETTY IMAGES

The recent announcement of the winners of two of the world’s most prestigious and valuable literary prizes has sparked plenty of controversy and debate.

First, there was the announcement of the winners of this and 2018’s literature’s holy grail — the Nobel prize. After 2018’s shocking and deeply embarrassing sexual harassment scandal that rocked and tore apart the Swedish academy responsible for awarding the prize, the failure to award a prize then was redressed by the announcement of two winners in 2019.

The winner of the prize for 2018 was Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, a writer whose lifelong struggle for the rights of women and unflinching ability to ask difficult questions of her country’s readers and citizens sat well enough with an audience waiting to see how the newly formed academy would deliver on its promise that 2019’s announcements would show the Nobel’s dedication to making its focus less Eurocentric and male-dominated.

Tokarczuk may still be very European and, like many previous recipients of the largesse of the academy, little read by English speakers, but her politics were sound enough and her writing undeniably original enough to warrant the recognition.

The same could not be so easily said for Austrian author Peter Handke, who was announced as the winner of the 2019 Nobel award. Handke, now in his 70s, has enjoyed a cult following among the European literati for his work as a playwright, but he’s also been hounded by controversy.

He was an outspoken champion of war criminal and Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević and questioned the veracity of the infamous Srebrenica massacre. Handke went so far as to deliver a eulogy at Milošević’s funeral in 2006, praising him for his dedication to the self-determination of his people. The outrage provoked by his win and the inconvenience of the Nobel’s double announcement meant little attention was given to Tokarczuk and the merits of her work, which is unfortunate, because by all accounts, the Polish author certainly warrants attention and consideration.

The world’s most prestigious and valuable literary award is still prone to the pressures placed on many similar awards by the tensions of merit versus message
Tymon Smith

The bigger question of how exactly the newly constituted Swedish academy believes its announcements have shown a willingness to overcome some of its past stubborn myopia has also not been properly addressed. What is evident is that the world’s most prestigious and valuable literary award is still prone to the pressures placed on many similar awards by the tensions of merit versus message.

Those tensions were made even more obvious by the Booker Prize announcement that followed hot on the heels of the Nobel prize announcement.

The Booker has not been without controversy in its 50-year history. Leaving aside the question of whether its judges have always given the award to the objectively best book of any year, the prize had, before this year, been shared twice. Once in 1974 when Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist shared the award with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, and again in 1992 when Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger split the prize money.

After 1992, the Booker’s committee introduced a rule that the prize could not be shared and would have to be awarded to a single author only. In 2013 there was much criticism of changes to the rules, whereby the prize was opened to authors from anywhere in the world who wrote in English, instead of only writers from the Commonwealth.

The single-winner rule is one 2019’s judges rejected in spite of directives from the prize’s literary director, Gaby Wood, that they make a one-author decision. The award was thus shared by Canadian author Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and British author Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.

The reasons for this decision have resulted in the publishing of many opinion pieces for and against it and many conspiratorial suggestions based on well-placed whisperings claiming to explain it.

At the heart of the Booker judges’ rejection of the rules is that sticky question of merit versus message. In Atwood’s case, her long-awaited sequel to her seminal 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been lauded by critics and hungrily devoured by readers. Atwood was hotly placed to win the prize in 1986 but lost out to Kingsley Amis, who took the Booker home for his comic novel The Old Devils. She did go on to win the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin and her 2019 victory makes her one of only four authors to have won the prize twice.

However, it’s the message of her current novel — which builds on the charged feminism and pro-choice vision of the original to deliver an equally trenchant warning about the new threats to women and the urgent need for radical changes in the face of the menace of the Trump era — that seems to have made the judges dig in their heels.

Evaristo is the first black British author to win the prize and her novel deals with the equally urgent subject of the realities of modern black women in Britain. It’s been hailed by many critics as the ultimate realisation of its author’s 25-year dedication to address the question of “what it means to not see yourself reflected in your nation’s stories”.

Faced with two books focused on two undeniably important issues, the Booker judges, rather than take a final position on which book should win based on literary merit, decided they could not be divided based on messaging, and so refused to budge.

While both authors have been humble and appreciative of each other and their joint recognition, the literati still want to believe that the fallacy of the idea of different styles and kinds of books being able to be judged purely on merit should have prevailed.

The truth is, what the Nobel and Booker panels have shown is that literary prizes, in spite of rules and regulations intended to ensure the best books and authors receive their due reward, are naturally and rightfully prone to the tastes and personalities of the people tasked with deciding them and the political and social tastes of the times.

Writers may not all believe that awards — even the most well-known and handsomely rewarded ones — mean anything. They still send messages to the reading public and help to expand our horizons. Whether we decide to make the jump and see for ourselves what all the fuss is about is finally up to us.