The long and short of choosing the Booker Prize winner
South African Damon Galgut has made the shortlist, along with five other authors from the UK, Sri Lanka and US
There’s something perverse about literary prizes.
How, after all, does one distinguish between one shape-shifting and mind-altering novel and another? It’s easy to push the chaff aside, but when one’s left with the wheat, the choice is surely one informed only by the personal taste of an individual reader (or judge) and by no objective yardstick of merit.
And thank goodness for that: while a writer finishing a book likely feels like a marathon athlete, the product of their labour is very different to a race of a certain length briskly completed. It’s idiosyncratic, hopefully surprising and wholly personal.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff, this year’s chair of the Booker Prize’s panel of judges, announced online which six of the 13 longlisted books are on the final list from which the Booker laureate will be chosen, and announced on November 3.
Thus she conveyed the joint selection of the judging panel, this year comprised also of the writer and editor Horatia Harrod; the actor Natascha McElhone; the English scholar Prof Chigozie Obioma, himself twice Booker-shortlisted; and Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury.
Here lies perhaps the first surprise for those not in the know. The lion’s share of the panel do not earn their keep through poring over literary texts or instructing students in literary theory. They are educated and well-read persons of accomplishment. Good books are pitched at normal-ish people who make a habit of reading.
Indeed, in 2012, Dan Stevens, who played the role of Matthew Crawley in the hit series Downton Abbey, served as a Booker judge. Albeit an English graduate from Cambridge, he’s no scholar of literature. Yet, he’s someone who interprets literary texts — scripts — for a living.
Though the judging panel is, therefore, not cloistered in academe, each year’s cohort does appear to represent a metropolitan elite — not least so if one bears in mind that the Booker has traditionally served not only the UK and Ireland, but also the commonwealth and Zimbabwe, as long as the novel in question was published in the UK or Ireland in the given year.
Only since 2014 have the portals been open also to writers from the US; two of the laureates since then have hailed from there. There are voices in favour of the reversal of that expansion: it is said to create the risk of the undue homogenisation of English prose. That half of this year’s shortlist hails from the US might well bear out this danger.
The shortlist includes the work of Anuk Arudpragasam, a Sri Lankan writer whose first novel had been written in Tamil; Patricia Lockwood, an American poet and memoirist; Nadifa Mohamed, a Somali-born British writer; Richard Powers, a Pulitzer-winning America novelist; Maggie Shipstead, another American novelist; and Damon Galgut, a SA author of nine novels, the first of which appeared when he was only 17.
In 2003, Galgut was also shortlisted, for The Good Doctor. Rumours circulated at the time that he had very nearly pipped the ultimate winner DBC Pierre at the post. In 2010, he was again shortlisted, for his novel In a Strange Room.
In light of this track record and more so of the glowing reviews his shortlisted novel The Promise has received on both sides of the Atlantic — in the New York Times, Rand Richards Cooper wrote of Galgut’s “narrative norm-breaking” — the bookies have for some time considered it a favourite.
Yet, not least because of the idiosyncratic composition of each year’s judging panel, predictions and extrapolations from previous years’ patterns are fraught. The Indian-American novelist Anita Desai, for example, was shortlisted three times — in 1980, 1984 and 1999. She didn’t once win. Yet, in 2006, her daughter Kiran reaped the laurels, for her novel The Inheritance of Loss.
Were Galgut indeed to win, he would be the third South African to do so. In 1974, Nadine Gordimer was a joint-laureate for The Conservationist. JM Coetzee took the prize twice: in 1983 for The Life & Times of Michael K and, in 1999, for Disgrace. It would be richly deserved.
On the longlist, too, was another South African writer Karen Jennings, whose third novel, An Island, is a bleak masterpiece. She struggled to have it published; its initial print-run was a staggeringly low 500.
Her longlisting has certainly changed the fate of this book. It would be perverse, however, if it did no more. Jennings deserves to be catapulted into a space where she no longer needs to implore publishers to give out her books; nor where she is read only by clusters of cognoscenti.
Surprisingly, too, the only South African of colour to have been honoured was Achmat Dangor, in 2004 shortlisted for Bitter Fruit. When, one wonders, will the Booker panel start recognising writing by black South Africans.
• Meiring is an advocate, book reviewer and member of the board of the STAND Foundation.
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