In awarding the $85,000 Man Booker Prize to the novel Milkman, by Anna Burns, the prize jury has rather defiantly rewarded the difficult over the popular. The book, set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, was second-last in the bookmakers’ odds right up to the end, and those odds are largely reflective of popularity among the reading public.
The overwhelming favourites to win were bestsellers and conventional novels. On the day before the announcement, Daisy Johnson’s mythical novel Everything Under was in first place in Ladbrokes’s odds, and not by coincidence it was the bestselling novel on the list. Everything Under was the critics’ darling before the announcement, partly because Johnson is 27 and would have been the youngest Booker winner ever.
Jostling for first place in the oddsmaking had been the American Richard Powers’s sprawling family saga The Overstory, and running close behind was Canadian Esi Edugyan’s historical adventure Washington Black. The Powers and the Edugyan books had a better chance of winning, it was thought, because both are formally conventional novels. The Overstory is a representative of that newest of all fictive genres, the eco-novel, narrating the century through a family’s photographs of trees as they grow. Washington Black is nominally a historical novel, although it has been gently criticized for being somewhat far-fetched, in the manner of Jules Verne. If I were a Hollywood studio, I would be looking at it very closely right now,
It’s not just Canadians who are disappointed that Washington Black did not get the nod: It has the makings of a blockbuster, and it’s frustrating to publishers and producers when prize juries do not play along. (I have been in rooms with publicists and booksellers who sigh with frustration when obscure novels win prizes. It is so much easier for everyone in the industry if the horses we have so heavily backed win.)
Burns’s Milkman, on the other hand, is a forbidding book formally and thematically. Reviewers said it was hard to guess who was speaking in each of its multiple points of view, as characters are unnamed. Even the city it is set in is unnamed. The narrative is in dialect. The jury chair, Kwame Appiah, even addressed this in announcing the prize: It is “not a light read,” he admitted.
Appiah also tipped his hand a bit in describing why the jury found it to be the most important book on the list: Its subject matter is topical in Britain right now. The book’s female protagonist is harassed by a man, making it relevant to the #MeToo moment. And the notion of Northern Ireland as a problematic state is back in the news again with Brexit, because the United Kingdom and Ireland will no longer be in a trading bloc together.
Now, Appiah says the fact that this story and these issues have deep British-Isles roots has nothing to do with the jury’s choice, but I’m not sure I believe him entirely. The admission of U.S. authors into the running in 2013 led to a great deal of anxiety in British cultural circles, and the fact that the previous two winners have been Yanks did not do anything to allay the fears of cultural nationalists. American culture does tend to brutally flatten anything in its immediate environment, and the worry has been that this would become just another U.S. literary prize. It was really time, some would have said, for a British winner. (And also a female winner – the most recent was in 2013).
The Brexit-Northern Ireland question is also a really local one. It’s not one that obsesses the international audience. Appiah has said that this is an issue of international relevance because it echoes the plight of Lebanon and Syria. That’s a bit of a stretch – this is really a hyperlocal choice. It’s hard to say whether this is an expression of British nationalism, but at least it can be said that it is a defiant rejection of both U.S. commercial dominance and commercialism itself. It is certainly is a rewarding of intellectual density, and writers all over the world can at least be be happy about that.