Craft & Culture Essays & Opinion

Why is the Booker prize becoming obsessed with identity?

"Lately, the Booker prize is losing whatever vestiges of objectivity it once had," writes Chris Zacharia.

Christmas 2020 will be a strange sort of celebration. There’s no way of knowing whether families will be kept apart by COVID-19 restrictions; whether social distancing will keep out the carollers; or if Father Christmas will want his mince pies and carrots wrapped in a sanitised jiffy bag. 

One minor tradition is safe, though: millions of book lovers will receive copies of the latest Booker prize winner and its shortlisted entourage, from well-meaning relatives safe in the knowledge that they will never actually have to read the things themselves. At the time of writing, 2020’s winner has yet to be officially announced, but it’s sure to sell well. 

Bashing the Booker has been a reliable hobby of bibliophiles for as long as the prize itself has existed. But, unless you think all attempts to judge and compare art are futile, there is always a place for prizes like the Booker. And it’s actually one of the more straightforward awards around.

At least, it should be. ‘The Booker Prizes reward the finest in fiction’ its website says, ‘Awarded annually to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.’

Since the Booker’s panel of judges changes every year, searching for consistency is bound to frustrate. Distinguished authors, semi-retired literary legends, up-and-coming newsworthies: the main criteria seems to be, firstly, that you yourself don’t have a book coming out that year, and secondly, that you’re eminent enough to award up-and-coming authors without succumbing to envy. 

So the Booker has never been objective. But lately, the prize is losing whatever vestiges of objectivity it once had. Rather than judging a book first on merit, and then looking at the author’s background, political stance, the wider public context, and so on, each year the prize seems to become increasingly dominated by a single prerogative: social justice.

That’s not a problem. But when it promotes books that are poorly-written, on the basis that they have a ‘powerful’ message or shine a light on a ‘timely’ issue, the prize becomes something else: a means of hijacking art to a political cause, regardless of the art’s quality. 

Last year’s joint winner Girl Woman Other, along with the shortlisted Ten Minutes and Thirty-Eight Seconds in this Strange World, demonstrate a tendency to subordinate quality for ‘message’. The first is a creative but flawed mosaic of black, non-binary British women. The second is simply terrible. 

Last year, Girl Woman Other was praised by the judges as being ‘a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood’. The book is daring and original, yet it fails on a fundamental level: it confuses identity for character. Without in-depth, complex characters, stories lack power, because great characters are what enable us to become emotionally invested in a novel, and to emerge from their pages feeling enlarged. 

But rather than being seen as a flaw, this limitation – identity above character – has been transformed into a virtue by the particular political climate of identity politics. It’s not that the judges couldn’t find books that focused on issues of race, gender, sexuality while developing character as well. It’s that identity-first is the message of our political moment, and the limitations of identity-first in literature (like poor characterisation) are simply a side effect.

The problem with this approach is that it traps the characters within the confines of their identity. Take Bummi, one of Girl Woman Other’s cast. She’s been in Britain for decades, and has a shrewd understanding of her English neighbours. But upon receiving an ancient bottle of wine from her daughter’s in-laws to-be, she finds the custom strange. Yet in return she gives them a few yards of traditional Nigerian fabric.

The English characters are trapped in their heritage, unable to act with agency; and Bummi, despite being much more carefully drawn, can only respond as a Nigerian woman of her generation. How much more revealing this gift-giving scene could have been, had we seen Bummi attempt to give the British in-laws what she thinks British people would like, and vice-versa.

Identity isn’t character. You could describe me as a 30-year-old second-generation male British Greek Cypriot. But this reveals nothing about who I really am. You could line me up with one hundred other 30-year-old British Greek Cypriot men and, besides the superficial similarities, find little else in common. 

Literature gives us a glimpse of these depths. It makes us feel as though we’ve delved into the lives of others, not just their superficialities, but their inner spirit. Occasionally Evaristo achieves this. But too often, her characters remain trapped in their registration-form identities, because the book’s message is about the all-consuming importance of identities. Dominique tells Amma:

‘We should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings…how can we argue with that?’ 

How indeed. But even if this is how lifelong friends talk to each other at 2am after two bottles of wine and several lines of coke, as this scene purports, it isn’t how we learn about who the characters are behind their slogans, behind their causes. 

Instead, we’re bombarded with cliches – within eighteen brisk pages, we see ‘wake-up call’, ‘cold turkey’, ‘too little too late’, ‘walk on eggshells’, ‘sweet as candy’, ‘bite her head off’, ‘spill the beans’, ‘lock them up and throw away the keys’, ‘in the heat of the moment’, ‘keep your hair on’, ‘get my head around’, ‘middle of nowhere’, ‘punch their lights out’, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘doesn’t have a clue’, and more. It weakens the writing’s impact. And lest you think it’s a device used for a specific character, these prefabricated phrases appear throughout the book: men ‘call the shots’, salesmen have ‘the gift of the gab’, employees ‘work their way up’, guys check out cleavage ‘without fail’; criticism is a ‘far cry’ from praise; and ‘precious time’ is wasted. Remember the Booker’s promise to reward ‘the finest in fiction’? 

These superficial differences become so all-consuming, that the inner self – the unique one, the one we actually experience in our own lives – is sidelined. ‘It’s what’s inside that counts’, we learned, back in the multicultural schools of the 1990s. This simple mantra, encouraging us to look beneath the surface and only judge people on what we encountered therein, has in one generation been jettisoned by insistence that surface-level differences are more important. 

Identity influences character. It’s the path that leads to the real self. Yet too often we mistake the path for the destination. Unless we can see that each of us is far more than the sum of our passport fields, unless we can admit that we cannot judge someone until we have worked to understand them, we’re likely to be misled by the superficial differences, signposts leading us astray from the heart: which is the only place where love can thrive.

Evaristo’s characters suffer for their identity – their jobs change, their relationships come and go – but because identity trumps character, they can’t change. They must stay faithful to their identity, which is after all their defining feature. So most of the characters are exactly the same at the end as when we first encountered them. Shirley is still a small-minded nag; Roland is arrogant and imperious; Sylvester is still an incorrigible socialist hypocrite; Dominique is still sassy and self-assured; Yazz is still a chatty extrovert; Amma is still the insecure egotist we met at the beginning. 

For others, the lessons and changes are delivered as sermons. Evaristo is an activist, and often her writing veers on campaigning. Megan/Morgan learns that gender is non-binary and that her parents were wrong to insist upon taffeta dresses when she was a child: 

‘Her mother was unthinkingly repeating patterns of oppression based on gender…she was determined to dress Megan up for the approval of society at large, usually other females who commented on her looks from as early as she can remember’. 

Lacking complexity, Evaristo’s cast feel oddly detached, ghostly, lacking proper agency. LaTisha, Carole, and Bummi overcome violent trauma, forbidding parents, and enormous odds, to make successes of themselves. But we don’t learn very much about how they do this. They just decide they’ve had enough one day and turn their lives around. We can accept that this is occasionally how change seems in real life, but after half-a-dozen such superficial turnarounds, it starts feeling unimaginative.

Of this year’s shortlist – which includes five debutantes – Evaristo said that she was ‘so excited by this groundbreaking shortlist for the 21st century’, arguing that ‘If you’re looking for fresh perspectives and narratives, surely you’re going to find it among the most underrepresented voices?’. Of course. But if we become so intent on ‘fresh perspectives’ that we ignore an element as fundamental as character, then we’re doing everyone a disservice.

Still, Girl Woman Other is positively Tolstoyan when compared to Elif Shafak’s Ten Minutes, another of 2019’s shortlist. Yet it has the same central preoccupation. It insists on identity above character, and – even more so than Girl Woman Other – every single one of its characters feel like flat superficial ciphers, presented by Shafak as representatives of their interest group.

It’s also one of the most mawkish novels you’ll ever encounter. Ask yourself: have you ever read a get-well-soon card – a saccharine one, covered with canoodling bears offering trite condolences – and wished it were 310 pages long?

Ten Minutes… features sentences like, ‘the grocer’s was a dimly-lit store with floor-to-ceiling shelves displaying tinned and packaged products’

And ‘The boy, a fervent admirer of luxury automobiles since childhood, whistled in admiration’

And ‘There was something strangely comforting in the way different cultures had arrived at similar customs and melodies, and in how, all around the world, people were being rocked in the arms of loved ones in times of distress’.

Again: the Booker is supposed to be highlighting ‘the finest of fiction’.

The protagonist, Tequila Leila, is a prostitute, left for dead in a wheelie bin. As she dies, we witness a flashback, one for every minute in her life’s final moments. A typical chapter begins, ‘Six minutes after her heart had stopped beating, Leila pulled from her archive the smell of a wood-burning stove’ (p.91). And if you think ‘Pulled from her archive’ seems like a rather cold and ill-fitting metaphor to describe the dance of memory said to precede brain-death, just wait until Shafak describes the graverobbing climax. 

That’s the first two-thirds of the book. The last third features her right-on gang of nicknamed outcasts trying to rescue her corpse from the pauper’s cemetery. There’s Jumeelah (the African) and Hollywood Humeyra (the fat one), we have Zeynab122 (the dwarf), Sabotage Sinek (the boring bank manager on a bender) and Nostalgia Nalan (the trans). All of them are besotted with Leila, whom they recall with routinely soppy sentimentality (‘She would have loved this’ he choked’). They have nothing in common except their boundless love for Leila, no desires except their need to save her body from ignominy.

Shafak is a very successful author who also holds a PhD in political science and a seat on the European Council on Foreign Relations. And it shows. The technocrat’s jargon of political discourse bleeds through her fiction. An asterisk helpfully reminds us that ‘Istanbul derives from eis ten polin in Medieval Greek, meaning to the city’. Potted histories of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and Turkish politics routinely divert the narrative. Worst of all are the clumsy backstories of Leila’s cringeworthy gang. Each of them is introduced in one of Leila’s memories, the chapter ending with the character’s name followed by ‘one of the five’ in a repetitive mantra reminiscent of a cult (‘Jameelah, one of the five’):

‘Jameelah was born in Somalia to a Muslim father and a Christian mother…Soon Jameelah – the eldest daughter – was clashing with her stepmother on nearly everything, from what she wore to what she ate and how she spoke’ (pp.118-119)

Here’s another one (‘Hollywood Humeyra, one of the five’):

‘Humeyra was born in Mardin, not far from the Monastery of St Gabriel on the limestone plateaus of Mesopotamia. Growing up in a land so ancient and troubled, she was surrounded on all sides by remnants of history’ (p. 157)

Again, identity subsumes character. Each of ‘the five’ is clearly intended to represent a group, lacking agency in their own right. Rarely are the characters allowed to speak for themselves, to act freely. They’re soppy marionettes in Shafak’s puppet show of morals and misery, there to make a point about poverty, or sectarianism, or the patriarchy. 

Leila’s biography is fascinating, but her character remains unexplored. Like most of Evaristo’s cast, she remains an identity. Leila is a messianic force for good, wronged but never a wrongdoer, a sinner with the heart of a saint. Walking home one night, she rescues a sick cat, paying for its expensive surgery herself, and making a lifelong friend to boot (‘The two women took turns to look after her – gradually building a steady friendship’ p.155). She selflessly encourages her friends, she stays true to her romantic principles despite hardship after hardship, she is every virtue personified. She might be a prostitute, Shafak seems to be saying, but look at how kind she is! Sometimes society is too quick to judge. I guess we all learned something today, didn’t we? 

The patronising, authorial certainty of the narrative voice is a big part of the problem. It leaves no room for nuance, subtlety, or expression. Rather than inspiring your feelings, Shafak coerces them, telling you exactly what to feel. Consequently, the writing is heavy-handed, so lacking in irony, it’s unintentionally comic. The dialogue, in particular, is so wooden it could be refashioned as antique furniture. Characters introduce themselves as if smiling and waving to the camera:

‘My name is Leila, by the way. With an ‘i’ in the middle, not a ‘y’. I’ve changed the spelling’

‘I’m Humeyra. Spelled the normal way. I work in a gazino down by the wharf’

‘What do you do there?’

‘Me and my band, we’re on stage every night’

Obviously, this is a bad novel. Poorly plotted, clumsily told, more concerned with making a political point than anything as humdrum as character or plot, it’s full of the kinds of mistakes you’d hope to be ironed out in sixth form. So why was it shortlisted for the Booker prize? 

The Booker Prize is a real prize. It’s the most prestigious literary award in the United Kingdom, a real country with a glittering history of incredible fiction. Writing of this quality should be nowhere near the longlist. Yet, in 2019, the judges decided to reward Ten Minutes… with the distinction of being one of the six best books published that year. 

Nearing the novel’s conclusion, I wondered what Shafak was trying to say. Insta-worthy inspirational quotes float through the text, trying their hardest to lift the story. Friendship is good, kindness is good, prejudice is bad, evil people are evil. Leila’s crew are each presented as victims, and their victimhood is what makes them good. In Shafak’s world, suffering always makes you a better person.    

This simplistic moral vision dooms the book – yet I suspect it’s why the Booker judges were so keen for it. In today’s polarised politics, novels cannot just be novels. They are either stepping stones to a world without prejudice, or bricks in the wall of oppression. Take Shafak’s impressive career as an academic and activist, add her feminist credentials, a dash of her pro-trans stance, an unexpected pinch of dwarfism, and you have the makings of a prizewinner. True, Ten Minutes… didn’t actually win the Booker, but given that Evaristo’s woke whirlwind Girl Woman Other beat her to it, it’s a moot point. 

Does this really matter? Evaristo and Shafak are clearly compassionate writers, devoted to art and activism, and illuminating oft-overlooked people and communities in the process. And I also want to emphasise that I respect anyone who has the courage to write, edit, and release a work of fiction – it’s much harder and more demanding than it looks, and, despite my criticisms, I don’t want to detract from that struggle.

What I do disparage is the craven kowtowing of the Booker prize to writing that fails basic competency. Prize-winning novels don’t just dominate time, attention, and best-seller lists. They shape the wider public’s perception of what literature can be. If you only read one or two novels a year, and you opt to read something like Ten Minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was an example of high-quality writing, that Shafak’s story in some way approaches the outer perimeter of what’s possible in fiction. Well, it isn’t. 

I believe in the power of literature because it changed my life. I want everyone to have the transformative experience that books can offer. Prizes should offer the most powerful, engaging, immersive fiction, the kind that showcases the fiction’s ability to defy gravity by achieving that impossible, longed-for feat: to deliver you into the mind and soul of another. 

The Booker won’t do this if it so blatantly champions work whose primary purpose is to win acolytes to a political cause, while reading like a sociology report. In fact, by selecting work for its ideological purity, by promoting novels based on their political palatability, they will only widen the spiritual chasm between liberal and conservative, radical and reactionary, woke and woebegone. Rather than selecting for quality, we’re selecting for identity, and so we encourage novelists to ignore character and focus on social justice sloganeering. 

Merry Christmas; enjoy your booker-filled stockings. If you can.

About the author

Chris Zacharia is a writer and journalist, who lives in London. He edits FLUX magazine. 

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