Although the past few months have felt a bit like a time trap, we’ve hit that time of year when The Booker Prize longlist is released. I’m sure many bookworms are scouring the list and getting ready to find some new gems to get stuck in to – but I’ll admit, I have mixed feelings about The Booker Prize.
For those who were wondering, like me, whether The Booker Prize and The Man Booker Prize had anything in common, the answer is yes. Up until 2019, the prize was known as The Man Booker, but now has been renamed The Booker. Hopefully that clears up any confusion before we dive in!
As an English student, and just someone who likes reading, I’ll admit that I do have a look at award lists for book recommendations. With The Booker being such a prestigious award, I’ve definitely found and read books that were longlisted, shortlisted or even won before.
Pre-university, I was ambitious and felt that I needed to prove my reading prowess. So, I used The Booker as an indication of what I should read to look like ‘a real English student’. I looked down on prizes like The Costa Book Award, because those were coffee shop books, often written to be easily read and, in my young mind, for those who didn’t read that much. That wasn’t me. At least, I thought it wasn’t. How the tables have turned.
Reading so much for my degree has left me with little patience for books that don’t grip me, or have complicated language and are simply just too full of themselves. I can appreciate the craftsmanship of such novels, but when I pick up a book for fun, I just don’t have the energy for them.
Often novels on The Booker Prize list are just plain hard to read. They’re literary pieces of art, yes, but they often aren’t the most accessible books
Here’s where I have mixed feelings about The Booker Prize. I have read some incredible books from The Booker, ones I loved. In fact, in my personal statement for university, I referred often to The God of Small Things by Arunhati Roy, which won in 1997. I’m also currently reading longlisted The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (an ex-Warwick student) and have next on my list the winning Girl, Woman, Other (Bernardine Evaristo).
However, it’s become a running joke between friends that often novels on The Booker Prize list are just plain hard to read. They’re literary pieces of art, yes, but they often aren’t the most accessible books. When I picked up Milkman last year to read over the summer, I found that I was slaving over the pages; I found myself dreading reading it and feeling guilty that I found it so difficult to get my teeth into. Likewise, it took me a good month to finish Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall this lockdown and I found myself reading other, less critically acclaimed books alongside it and enjoying them so much more.
But what books have actually been longlisted for The Booker this year? All 13 can be found on the Booker website and I have to admit that I’ve not actually read any of those longlisted. Actually, it makes perfect sense that I haven’t, because most of them will now become popular courtesy of being longlisted. Here is where The Booker prize (and other book prizes) are so important – the publicity. I’ve had a look through those longlisted and, whilst I have to say I’m in no hurry to repeat my Wolf Hall experience by reading The Mirror & the Light, Mantel’s final instalment to the trilogy, there are still several books I’m keen to read.
One thing I noticed about the longlist this year is the celebration of diverse female writing
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi looks right up my street. It is all about love and betrayal between mother and daughter, that is apparently ‘sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit’. I also love the look of The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, set in Ethiopia and based on the ‘women soldiers written out of African and European history’.
One thing I noticed about the longlist this year is the celebration of diverse female writing. Those two aforementioned books I was specifically drawn to are both written by women, one from New Delhi and the other from Ethiopia. This is a fantastic step for such a prominent literary prize.
So, although The Booker Prize may not always consist of the most accessible reading for the average person, there are always some real gems in there. Not only this, but it brings attention to some remarkable literature that may have otherwise got lost in such a saturated market. The only novel I had already heard of in the list was the one by Hillary Mantel, but that’s because she is already a prominent writer and previous Booker Prize winner. It seems to me quite likely that Mantel will be a shoe-in for the win, simply as a big name, but I do really hope that one of the other novels swipes the prize. It would be great to see under-represented authors taking the lead, and winning The Booker can truly transform and give the author the recognition they deserve.
Ultimately, is The Booker Prize important? Yes. Great literary work deserves recognition and I hope that those longlisted books will enjoy the popularity they most certainly deserve. However, should we assume that only those novels nominated for prizes like The Booker are worth our time? Or disregard other ‘less academic’ or ‘fancy’ prizes because they are not as well renowned? Not at all! There are so many great books out there, suited to all tastes, and sometimes you just want to curl up with a trashy romance. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.