October 15, 2019

There’s a popular image macro meme that circulates around the internet called “You Had One Job”. The authorities on meme classification identify it as a subcategory of the “Epic Fail” family of memes, and the format is pretty standard. You take a photograph of something obviously stupid — a big bag of donuts in a shop marked “Hot Dogs”, say; a price-reduction sticker that tells you “Original Price: £15.99, Now only £17.99”; a kids’ lunchbox with a big picture of Superman on it labelled “Batman” — and you superimpose in nice friendly capitals: “YOU HAD ONE JOB”.

Such an image macro we can now imagine being made of the photographs of Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo embracing on stage as last night’s joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize. BOOKER JUDGES, YOU HAD ONE JOB. Pick a sodding winner. One winner. That’s what the rules say. That’s what you’re formally empanelled to do, and paid to do, and trusted to do. That’s what the public are expecting you to do. That is the whole point of the prize.

According to reports of proceedings, the judges were deadlocked between the two eventual winners. They asked Gaby Wood, the literary director of the prize, whether they could split the prize. No, she said: you can’t. They specifically changed the rules in 1992, after the last time this happened, precisely to prevent judges wimping out and splitting the fifty grand between two. The rubric says in black and white: “the prize may not be divided or withheld”. The panel returned for another hour of deliberation. They asked, again, whether they could split the prize. Gaby this time booted the issue upstairs to Helena Kennedy, Booker’s uber-poobah, the chair of the foundation’s trustees. She, too, said firmly that, no: their job was to pick a single winner.

Did that do the trick? No.The panel ignored her too and insisted that they were going to split the prize anyway. “We were trying to accommodate the rules that were given to us,” the chair of the judges, Peter Florence, said afterwards. “How do you equably and fairly resolve something that seems irresolvable? You find a way of changing the game.” Fine words, but the first sentence is pure humbug. Rules aren’t there for you to “try to accommodate” — just ask Boris Johnson about his prorogation scheme. 

But the nature of Booker is such that — given the final judging meeting happens on the day of the prize — the judges had the whip hand. I can’t speak for the Booker trustees, but you can make a pretty good guess as to why they had to cave. Public-relations-wise, firing the judges and/or cancelling the prize two hours before it was due to be awarded — with Katie Derham all done up to the nines and the Guildhall already filling up with tipsy blokes in black tie — would have been completely unthinkable. Cave they did. Shame on Peter Florence, who as chair had the power and responsibility to use his casting vote, for putting them in that position.

I don’t make this complaint from a literary point of view. Moaning that the judges should have picked a different winner is the traditional form of fatuous post-Booker comment; indeed, that’s the piece I’d rather be writing. For what it’s worth I’ve read Bernardine Evaristo’s book, Girl, Woman, Other and I think it’s terrific. I haven’t read Atwood’s The Testaments but I have every faith that it’s terrific too. Maybe there were better books; maybe not. The deal with the Booker Prize is that each panel of judges gets to choose the winner they damn well please, and literary pundits fill a quick few column inches and make a quick few quid grumbling about it or defending the decision according to taste, and the whole jolly cycle begins again. 

And, yes, of course every chair of judges makes — as Peter Florence did at some length — a speech in which he or she formulaically laments the cruel artificiality of the prize process. Every chair, as Peter Florence did, wrings his or her hands about how, really, they wish they could have given every book on their stellar longlist a prize. Every chair, as Peter Florence did, says how hard it was to choose. That, too, is part of the game. It’s gracious and right and it’s expected.

But then you’re supposed to say: “But at the end of the day there could be only one winner…” Absurd it may be; unfair it may be; even philistine it may be — but that’s the game. That’s what you sign up for. 

Here’s the problem. Within moments of the win being announced, I found myself in a conversation — I expect one that will have been replicated all over the hall in various forms — with some fellow guests. One wondered aloud whether the double win had been because the judges had felt sentimental about Margaret Atwood: they wanted to give the prize to Evaristo, she speculated, because hers was the better book, but they didn’t feel they could snub a writer of Atwood’s undoubted greatness and loveableness.

Well, possibly, someone else countered. But isn’t it equally possible that it was the other way around? Perhaps they thought Margaret Atwood had written the best book but they wanted to give Bernardine Evaristo’s profile a much needed and much deserved boost; that giving the prize to a book whose vast sales were already guaranteed and whose author was already as famous as authors get would be a waste of the power at their disposal.

Either of these positions might be true. And neither position might be true: perhaps, indeed, quite independently of any extra-literary consideration, the judges considered both books so equally good that you could not get a cigarette paper between them.

But by choosing both, they immediately open the verdict to that sort of speculation. That’s unfair on both authors. Bernardine, on stage, spoke very graciously about how thrilled she was to be sharing the prize with “the legend that is Margaret Atwood”. But as she was too gracious to say, it obviously would have been even more thrilling to have beaten that legend into joint second place.

The suspicion in the reading public’s mind will be that one or other of these considerable authors was being patronised; that something extra-literary had entered into the considerations of the panel, that the judges were trying to have their cake and eat it. Had they given it a single one, that would not have been possible in the same way. They could have said, simply: this book is first among equals. Pundits may say what they like, may accuse us of what they like, but we have made the hard decision that every panel of Booker is tasked to make — and this is the best novel published in English, in our opinion, this year.

That they did not presents a tremendous headache for the prize going forward. The rules were put in writing. They were reaffirmed, unequivocally, at the highest levels of institutional authority. And the judges demonstrated that they could, effectively, blackmail the organisers into ignoring them.

This sets a rotten, rotten precedent. The handshake agreements that have previously governed the judging could well firm into legal contracts; the valuably theatrical tradition that the final meeting takes place on the day (also practical since it helps prevent leaks) might well go by the board. And even with such notional safeguards established, what’s to prevent judges throwing a similar strop in future years. You let them split the prize two ways: why can’t we split it three ways this year?

Epic fail.