By Lara Moamar
The Booker Prize is no stranger to controversy. Since it was founded in 1969, the organization has come under fire for its lack of diversity and limited narrative. From 2000 to 2015, only three of the books awarded had female protagonists, showing a strong bias towards male perspectives. According to The Guardian, in the first 43 years of the prize only two judges were people of colour out of more than 200. Just last year, the joint awarding of Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood polarized the public as many were quick to notice that Evaristo, the first black woman to win, had to share the prize.
This year’s shortlist, however, seems to be of the most diverse yet, signaling a positive shift. Or does it? For John Banville, winner of the 2005 Booker with The Sea, such steps to diversify the voices nominated make it more difficult for a straight white male to get published. He states: “I despise this ‘woke’ movement. Its become a religious cult.”
Before we rush to beat Banville with a stick – you can already hear the Twitter engine whirring – let’s understand what he means by the term ‘woke’. While we usually intend to use woke to refer to an increasing awareness of the socio-political injustices around us as well as a means of enlivening the long dormant political conscience of our communities, we must also admit that ‘woke’ has been negatively co-opted as a social media trend. It has become yet another tool for the performance activist, contributing to our cancel culture and attempting to scale people’s ‘woke-ness’ level to see if they make the cut. Being woke has shifted from the act of acquiring deeper knowledge and compassion to merely appearing woke: reaping the praise for outward political correctness without sowing the seeds of change. If this is the woke movement Banville refers to, I can safely say I despise it too.
Unfortunately, Banville equates performative justice with a genuine desire to level the playing field. When he claims that “Black or transgender people should not be given a special place. They should be given the same treatment as the rest of us”, he fails to realise that minority voices have struggled to gain a ‘place’ at the literary table to begin with, let alone a special one. Including underrepresented voices is not a trendy act of political charity; their fiction is just as serious and worthy of literary merit, they’ve just rarely been granted the chance for recognition. Complaining that the straight white male narrative is threatened by the entrance of diversity suggests just how deeply ingrained intolerance is.
Diversity allows for the equal opportunity of voices of all backgrounds and identities to enter the conversation. It is a simple widening of the circle, not a divisive element that detracts from others’ rights. For centuries, literature has been a vital empowering tool for writers to respond to the injustice of their time – why should our prizes reflect anything different from that? Prizes as prestigious as the Booker have the undeniable power to boost sales and increase the readership of the titles nominated, allowing underrepresented perspectives to break through to the general public. Naturally, any change from the norm will elicit criticism and there will always be mistakes made in the process that we need to look out for; but refreshing steps such as this year’s Booker shortlist are encouraging signs of hope. Marginalised voices simply cannot remain on the margins forever.
Image: John-Mark Smith via Unsplash