Sunday 28 December 2014

Man Booker longlist is off-colour

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

Niall Williams
Niall Williams

Writing in last weekend's Observer, first-time novelist Irenosen Okojie took issue with the recently announced Man Booker longlist, or at least with 12 of the 13 novels in contention for the prize - none of them, she noted, written by "writers of colour".

Might it simply be that hardly any outstanding novels by "writers of colour" were eligible for the prize? Seemingly not because, according to the Nigerian-born Okojie, the "very white and predominantly male" longlist was drawn up by a judging panel which "has once again chosen to ignore the talents of writers of colour".

And she asked the reader to bear in mind that such writers "look to these lists for inspiration, to see themselves reflected".

In other words, Okojie is plainly of the opinion that the purpose of literary prizes is not to reward excellence but rather to validate the aspirations of individual writers, though seemingly only if they're "of colour" (is white not a colour?) or if they're women - the Man Booker in particular honouring a "paltry number of women" throughout its 45-year existence.

Is that true? Only if you think that 17 women winners (five in the last 10 years) can be described as "paltry" - and, indeed, only if you really believe that this is due to a "fear of giving women the plaudits they deserve in a largely patriarchal hierarchy".

In Okojie's view, this malignant hierarchy is so "embedded" that "it's necessary to have prizes specifically for women", and it's for one of these prizes, the SI Leeds Literary Prize, that she acts as an "advocate". Maybe she'll enter her forthcoming debut novel, Butterfly Fish, for this award, which is open only to black and Asian women writers. In fact, with no pesky white males in competition, she might even win it.

And Niall Williams might win this year's Booker for History of the Rain, which I thought a surprising inclusion in the longlist.

Reviewing it in these pages last April, I felt that in its determinedly New Agey way it came "perilously close to life-affirming chicklit", but what do I know?

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