The Booker Prize longlist: nominations and representation

Lucy Lawrence has her say on the 13 nominations for the 2020 Booker Prize.

Lucy Lawrence
10th August 2020

From 162 to 13 novels; the Booker Prize has announced their 2020 longlist.

The "Booker Dozen" was released last week, and as always with award culture, there comes speculation on representation, not only concerning the authors themselves, but the stories being told and even the judges deciding who and what deserves this 'cultural prestige'. The very nature of these questions may seem pedantic, but they are significant as they are at the core of what we as a society view as literary greatness.

The rules to enter a novel are quite simple: 'The Booker Prize for Fiction is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the UK or Ireland'. The novels which have been longlisted are as follows:

  • The New Wilderness, Diane Cook - An exploration of a mother-daughter relationship in a world ravaged by change and overpopulation.
  • This Mournable Body, Tsitsi Dangarembga - A young woman struggles against colonial and capitalist obstacles in Zimbabwe.
  • Burnt Sugar, Avni Dashi - An unpicking of the memories which tie together a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.
  • Who They Was, Gabriel Krauze - An autobiographical insight into London's dark crime and gang culture.
  • The Mirror & The Light, Hilary Mantel - The third novel of the trilogy, which traces the final years of infamous Thomas Cromwell.
  • Apeirogon, Colum McCann - A tour-de-force concerning friendship, love, loss and belonging
  • The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste - Breaths life into the story of an orphan trying to survive during Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia.
  • Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid - Explores the microaggressions and racism WOC face, even from their 'woke' white friends.
  • Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart - Set in Margaret Thatcher's Glasgow, Stuart embarks on a childhood journey of addiction, class, sexuality and love.
  • Real Life, Brandon Taylor - Follows the story of a young Southern gay man as he struggles to find belonging in a hostile environment.
  • Redhead by The Side of The Road, Anne Tyler - A life of routine is shattered by a new girlfriend, and a knock on the door from a long lost teenage son.
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments, Sophie Ward - A philosophical exploration of love, using the failing relationship between two women.
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pam Zhang - Blends together Chinese symbolism and reimagined history to share a haunting adventure experienced by two orphaned siblings.

The diversity of story representation is astronomical here. There seems to be a focus on the relationships that we have as a society with our family, the environment and ourselves. Surrounding this are narratives of dysfunction, racism, class, politics and sexuality. It seems that there is an endeavour to give people from all walks of life something they can identify with. The longlist, for me, captures human identity and the complicated layers of simultaneous joy and pain we feel in each moment. The outer and inner pressures we all fight for and against as we evolve into who we want to be.

Last year's joint winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo. Credit: @TheBookerPrizes

In terms of hard statistics, there are nine female authors, six authors from an ethnic or minority heritage and four openly LGBTQ+. Most shockingly, there are nine Americans, which is a bigger deal than it may seem. The admittance of American authors into this pool of nominations has only been recent, and received quite the backlash from UK publishers for giving a platform to a country which already has a large presence in contemporary literature publishing.

This all immediately highlights that there is a kaleidoscope of perspectives, voices and experiences being given centre stage (even if not everyone is so pleased with the love being shown to our American counterparts... or as they would say, competitors). To me, this is quite enheartening for the current and future landscape of British Literature as it shows that we are finally giving power to those silenced in the past and expanding our world view to be more inclusive.

"There are voices from minorities often unheard, stories that are fresh, bold and absorbing."

Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges

However, further research into the authors calls to question the accessibility of The Booker Prize longlist. There has been heavy emphasis on the ground-breaking number of eight debutants this year. On the surface, this seems an impressive representation of new voices breaking into Literature.

Many of these debuts come from authors who have already published short stories, poetry or articles, with reputable magazines. Gabriel Krauze has published with VICE, Sophie Ward with The Times, and Douglas Stuart with The New Yorker. It seems misleading to praise the number of debut novels nominated, as it suggests these authors are newly discovered talents, when they are already a part of the literary establishment; even if they are perhaps not literary giants like last years joint winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo.

Moreover, ten of the authors already hold prestigious awards or roles within the literary circuit. Hilary Mantel has won this very prize twice previously. Tsitsi Dangarembga is a previous winner of the Commonwealth Writer's prize. These are a mere two examples of exemplary achievements the longlisted writers hold.

This view of the representation may seem cynical, but it is therefore arguable that The Booker Prize has become a way to gatekeep what is viewed as culturally 'the best'. This is not to call to question the judges or authors' talents, but more so to ponder: why is it we allow a select few to pave the way for literary culture when one's taste in literature and their human experience is entirely subjective?

However, it is unfair to completely discredit the positivity surrounding the award. The Booker Prize stamp of approval will undoubtedly result in a skyrocket of sales for the nominated novels, and further credit the status of the authors as novelists. This success is shown by how in the week following the 2019 winner's announcement, sales of The Testaments rose from 11,955 to 13,400 copies.

"It’s especially heartening to know that some authors who have launched their careers in the midst of Covid-19 may now have a chance to reach the readers they deserve.”

Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation

Overall, The Booker Prize longlist is impressively diverse in the representation of voices being heard and perspectives being shown. There is an influx of female and minority nominees which is inspiring and gives hopeful insight into how the contemporary British literary landscape is shaping up to continue being more inclusive of all experiences. There remains a space for improvement in terms of elitism which perhaps excludes those without some form of status in the literary world. Yet I am absolutely a fan of this year's nominations, and cannot wait to see which have made the shortlist on the 15th September.

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