DOUBLE BOOKED

Atwood and Evaristo: More Complicated Than You’d Expect

On the October 14, the most prestigious award of the literary calendar took place. This time around the award warranted even more fanfare and gossip than usual, and not just because it was celebrating it’s fiftieth year.

Head Judge and representative for this year’s panel Peter Florence announced that after deliberating for hours on the day of the award, the judges decided that the two books could not be separated. As such, the Man Booker Prize was jointly awarded to Canadian literary titan Margaret Atwood for her much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, a sprawling narrative of twelve women heralded ‘a panorama for modern black womanhood.’

This time around the award warranted even more fanfare and gossip than usual, and not just because it was celebrating it’s fiftieth year. Head Judge and representative for this year’s panel Peter Florence announced that after deliberating for hours on the day of the award, the judges decided that the two books could not be separated. As such, the Man Booker Prize was jointly awarded to Canadian literary titan Margaret Atwood for her much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, a sprawling narrative of twelve women heralded ‘a panorama for modern black womanhood.’

Not only is the shared winning unusual- it’s also against the prize’s own rules. The prize has been shared before-twice. But after awarding the prize jointly to Michael Ondaatje of The English Patient fame and Barry Unsworth for Sacred Hunger in 1992, it was declared that a dual win would not happen again.  27 years later, Atwood and Evaristo share the stage to accept their accolade. Whilst both winners accepted their co-win with grace, there has been some audible objection from followers of the prize.

Evaristo is the first black woman in Man Booker history to bag the prize. Many have suggested that her sharing of the win has undermined this significant event and suggested there has been (subliminal or otherwise) some effort to keep the prize palatable for more ‘conservative’ readers. Evaristo has been quite rightly vocal on this topic, remarking that ‘certainly black people don’t win lots of literary awards’. Evaristo’s win is a landmark event with her hoping ‘more black women win this prize’. Hopefully, the floodgates remain open, and diversity is not relegated to the confines of the International Man Booker Prize which shortlists international authors. Girl, Woman, Other earning the prize is definitely a step in the right direction, but the fact that the first black woman to win in the fifty-year history of the prize had to share it (for only the second time in the prize’s existence’ is undoubtedly troubling.

The slight of a shared win is heightened by whom Evaristo won alongside. Atwood, who has been a cornerstone of modern literature for over 5 decades, has won the prize previously, in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, and was nominated in 1986 for the canonical The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments broke records, selling 100,000 hardback copies in the first week of release, the highest number for four years. This alone- without considering the success of her backlist- is enough to suggest Atwood wasn’t in need of the prize money (usually £50,000 to one author, this year shared equally). Evaristo’s novel received a 1340% increase in sales after winning the award, over doubling the amount the book had sold since being published in May. This highlights the power of the Man Booker as not just a cultural icon- but a capitalist one. The prize is the richest literary award- and continues to share its financial prizes with mostly men and women of white, successful backgrounds.

Atwood noted before the ceremony that winning would be a ‘double-edged sword’, highlighting her uncanny power of prophecy once more. The Canadian author suggested a solo win would be ‘embarrassing’ implying her self awareness to the audience reaction of her novel. While The Testaments is a landmark release, it has been coined ‘a well written YA novel’ and lacks the lushness of prose she is known for. Many have argued on a literary level, Atwood’s novel was simply not a match for Evaristo’s. Perhaps the award was given to the image of the great writer who has become a cultural reference within herself, rather than the novel.  Maybe the book is a literary event rather than a piece of remarkably writing. Regardless of your individual opinion, The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other are two of the most important releases of the year and should find a worthy place on your shelves.

Featured image by Lancaster Litfest/Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación

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