If you’re a regular reader of Storyacious, you know that we take books and movies award shows and series – Booker, Pulitzer, National Book, Orange, Oscars, Screen Actor’s Guild, etc. – somewhat seriously.
Yes, frequently, they get it wrong – e.g. promoting certain fashions of writing or movie-making, favoring the Western canon (in both media), being elitist, etc. And, yes, practically every major award series has, through the decades, courted its fair share of controversy and with good reason. Still, there is something to be said for the public celebration and recognition of artistic talent and the innovative works they have created. Without getting into a debate on the position, importance and relevance of the arts overall in our societies today (which is a much larger and complex conversation than the purpose of this post requires), let us acknowledge, for now, that, if nothing else, these awards nurture storytellers and make them known to the masses. And, those two aspects alone make them worth paying attention to, whatever your ambivalence or aversion towards the selection process, judges or actual winners might be.
One such award had one of their big annual milestones today. The Man Booker Prize Committee announced their 2013 shortlist. See some background and their longlist from July this year here.
Notable in today’s announcement were the following observations by the Committee Chair, Robert MacFarlane:
The six books on the list could not be more diverse. There are examples from novelists from New Zealand, England, Canada, Ireland and Zimbabwe – each with its own highly distinctive taste. They range in size from the 832 pages of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries to the 104-page The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. The times represented stretch from the biblical Middle East (Tóibín) to contemporary Zimbabwe (NoViolet Bulawayo) by way of 19th-century New Zealand (Catton), 1960s India (Jumpha Lahiri), 18th-century rural England (Crace) and modern Tokyo (Ruth Ozeki). The oldest author on the list, Jim Crace, is 67, the youngest (indeed the youngest ever shortlistee), Eleanor Catton, is 28. Colm Tóibín has written more than 15 books, The Luminaries is only Catton’s second.
….. it shows that the novel remains a multi-faceted thing; that writing and inspiration knows no geographical borders; that diaspora tales are a powerful strand in imaginative thinking; and that human voices, in all their diversity, drive fiction.
Earlier, I had also written about the recent fall of the female protagonist in literary fiction. It had started as just an idle musing, but, when I compiled those stats, I was somewhat taken aback that my hypothesis was indeed true. So, as much as I do not want to dig up the female vs male author coverage thing that blew up in the summer of 2010 around the New York Times, the correlation between author-protagonist genders in literary fiction becomes difficult to ignore as well. And, as with everything else in life, we need the women in our fictions (especially the ones we hold up as the best examples of artistic innovation) to be more than just secondary characters or shallow fantasy heroines. [Aside: Another article, just this week, highlights a slightly different issue about the low coverage that authors of color get from mainstream literary media. There is a table summarizing a survey that says it all.]
All that being said, this particular Booker shortlist is something to rejoice about. In addition to the diversity mentioned in the official Booker Committee statement and as quoted above, note that there is an almost equal set of male and female protagonists. Yes, it is likely again that this is because of that author-protagonist correlation again – 4 out of 6 shortlisted authors are women. But, that, in itself, is not a bad thing either, given past precedence (see the stats post linked above).
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – Male protagonist, Walter Moody
- The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin – Female protagonist, Mary
- We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo – Female protagonist, Darling
- Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – Male protagonist, Subhash Mitra
- Harvest by Jim Crace – Male protagonist, Walter Thirsk
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – Female protagonists, Nao and Ruth
So, like the rest of the literary world, I await the announcement of the winner on October 15, 2013 – mark your calendars. If I was a gambling woman, my money would be on Colm Toibin, although William Hill has different odds.
By the way, here’s an interesting Booker books mapping.