Last Monday, the Booker prize announced its winners — that’s right, winners, plural — as Margaret Atwood for “The Testaments” and Bernadine Evaristo for “Girl, Woman, Other.” The decision is monumental, for a number of reasons, but allowing two works to “tie” or share the award calls into question the fundamental purpose of prizes. What does it mean for a work to share such a high honor? What does it even mean to win the Booker? These questions are not new to the world of prize culture, but in the wake of the Booker announcement, it doesn’t hurt to revisit them.
It’s important to note a few things. Both of these women are breaking records by winning this award: Atwood is the oldest author to ever win at 79, and Evaristo is the first black woman to win. It’s always fun to cheer on women as they break barriers, but let’s be honest. One of these records is a fun fact, while the other is a monumental first. If this seems a bit harsh on Atwood, now is a good time to remind you that this is by no means Atwood’s first time on the prize circuit. Atwood has had a novel shortlisted for the Booker in 1986, 1989, 1996, and 2003, and won in 2000. She’s tied with Iris Murdoch for the most nominations to the shortlist (six), but Murdoch has only won once whereas Atwood now holds a second. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now: Margaret Atwood is nominated for prizes, and often.
But most shocking of all is not the idea that two books could win the same prize — after all, the Booker was also jointly awarded in 1974 and 1992 — it’s that awarding two authors in the same year is now expressly against the Booker rules. In 1993, the rules were changed to very clearly state that only one text could be awarded per year, and until 2019 that has been the case. The Telegraph reported the day the news was announced that the jury wasn’t split between the two titles, but rather unanimously agreed that both books deserved to win.
But why did both books deserve it? And with that comes the bigger question: What does it mean to be awarded a prize like the Booker? Simply, it’s complicated. There are a lot of reasons why a book or an author could or should win such a high profile prize. It could be a way to pay dues to an author that is a cultural force or a mainstay in literature (like Salman Rushdie). It could be for a completely new and innovative concept, format or storyline (like Lucy Ellman’s “Ducks, Newburyport” which spans nearly a thousand pages in only one sentence). But it also could simply be for a damn good book. There are so many reasons to give a book an award, and that’s okay.
If I think awarding a prize is complicated — which I certainly do — then why am I so put off by the “tie” between Atwood and Evaristo? Perhaps because it feels like the jury got off easy. They were tasked to name a single winner, and they failed. Atwood certainly deserves something: “The Handmaid’s Tale” was only shortlisted and that turned out to have cultural impact for decades, and “The Testaments” seems to be relatively well received despite it being a sequel written 34 years later. It would be hard to argue against the idea that Atwood has created a story that has pervaded popular culture, and “The Testaments” is a continuation of that story. I’m not upset that Atwood was recognized, but if the jury wanted to award Atwood for being the literature icon that she is, they needed to own up and give her the Booker.
Basically, the jury had to choose between a decent sequel to a book they had previously failed to award that has sold over 180,000 copies by a well-known and loved author, and a lesser-known but deeply touching novel that clearly had an impact on the jury as readers (falling into the “damn good book” category). In a way, it is like judging apples and oranges, but in the end it’s the jury’s responsibility to decide whether in the year 2019 it is more important to choose the apple or the orange. Then, people can take issue with the jury’s choice, or accept it. By refusing to choose, the Booker jury is trying to please everyone and in a way, pleasing no one.
The Telegraph reports that Peter Florence, the chair of judges, refutes the idea that winning alongside a figure like Atwood diminishes Evaristo’s accomplishment. Perhaps, but wouldn’t it have felt even better to have beaten her?
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @caroline_tew.