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. You can find him on Twitter at @Chris_Zacharia

7 comments

  1. I had a boss some time ago who quite candidly explained his way of invalidating arguments that he didn’t want to have to grapple with. He would simply demand to know, ‘what is this obsession with..?’ and he would pin the accusation on whatever he objected to. Databases, profit, employment laws. Having done so, anyone who raised the dreaded subject again could be accused of having fallen prey to the ‘obsession’. The argument was won without having ever been entered into.
    And so with this article. This article does not question whether the Booker has become ‘obsessed’ with identity. It does not raise this as a possibility or a danger or a risk. It attacks it as a fact. It assumes a state of affairs, and then, leaving the assumption unexamined, proceeds to review the consequences of the ‘obsession’.
    So let us examine the assumption for one paragraph. A clinical obsession is an ugly and problematic psychological disorder, and is not one that can be shared by more than one person. There is no diagnosis of ‘collective obsessive disorders’. And that is not what is meant. ‘Obsession’ is not meant literally. And yet it is used as the basis of criticism of the Booker judges. They are ‘obsessed’ with identity. The implication, since it is clearly not a psychological diagnosis, is that the judges have in some manner relinquished their hold on the ‘proper’ basis for judging literature and that they—or their senses—have been victims of ‘hijacking art to a political cause’ [sic]. They are deceived. Misguided. They are not being accused of an error of judgement; they are accused of being rendered incapable of judgement. That’s a big claim.
    But the assumption is disingenuous. It is clear from the outset that the criticism is not in good faith. It is not a simple disagreement with the reasoning or the conclusions of the judges; it is an attempt to undermine the basis of the panels’ deliberations based on a self-certified determination. Is there any special insight into those judgements? Any privileged information? No. It is a reversed-logic argument. The writer has decided that the judges decisions were wrong, and has concluded therefore, that the judges must have been deceived (or foolish, or psychologically invalidated).
    This might, possibly, have some persuasiveness if the writer did not then throw away any crumbs of credibility with a post-too-many-gin-and-tonics attack on Elif Shafak’s Ten Minutes and Thirty-Eight Seconds in this Strange World. The writer declares, with what might, in other circumstances, be admirable confidence, that Ten Minutes and Thirty-Eight Seconds in this Strange World is ‘is simply terrible’; in these circumstances this reads as morally ambiguous arrogance.
    The Booker prize judges, in his view are wrong. Deceived by their ‘obsession’ and ‘hijacked’ by a mis-conceived political trend for ‘political purity’. So who are these gullible naïfs, so easily swept along by the thoughtless breeze of political correctness? Whose judgements should we set to one side in favour of the writer’s psychologically and politically untainted opinions? Who does he place himself above?
    To start with he places himself above Liz Calder, publisher of Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Anita Brookner. This is curious. One might have expected her to have had some insight.
    He places himself above Xiaolu Guo, whose work has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Award, the Folio Prize and the Costa Award; who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award; who was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. With so many accolades it is odd, is it not, that she might be so distracted by her ‘obsession’ with identity?
    He places himself above Afua Hirsch who is not only a prestigious critic, but was once a barrister and who might, therefore have been relied upon to be balanced in her thinking. But this writer knows better. He places himself above Joanna MacGregor, despite her OBE, above Peter Florence who created the Hay Festival and who, therefore, might be viewed as someone who knows something about literature. (How else did he obtain a CBE for services to literature and charity? Through some obsession, perhaps?)
    And even beyond the Booker judges, this writer defies Philippe Sands, Simon Shama and Francesca Segal. This writer knows better than all of them. He knows better than Peter Frankopan, better than Colum Mccann. Better than Hanif Kureishi.
    Or could it be otherwise? Might it possibly be that all of those admirers of Elif Shafak’s work found something in Ten Minutes and Thirty-Eight Seconds in this Strange World that this writer was unable to identify? Might it be the reading that is flawed, not the writing?
    For my own part, I cannot understand anyone reading that book and not coming away from it with a feeling for the characters, the locations and the lives. To see them only as types, or mere ‘identities’ appears to miss so many literary cues that it seems almost wilful.
    It makes me wonder where these assumptions come from? What is the provenance of the assumption that selecting novels with a refreshing approach to literature is invalid? Martin Amis and Julian Barnes embargoed cliches decades ago, just as many others laid down the self-penned strictures of literature before them. Bernardine Evaristo is entirely within her rights to wholly ignore their constraints. When you are breaking out of jail, you don’t abide by the rules.
    The writer would like to champion literature’s ability to ‘deliver you into the mind and soul of another’. But for it to do that, you must be willing to be moved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Andy,

      Thanks for your reply. I wrote this article in good faith, but yes, the title is a bit of a stretch. Let’s put aside questions of obsession, because you’re right, the Booker isn’t ‘obsessed’ with identity. And the fact that the judges change every year means that consistency is hard to find, let alone obsession.

      However, I do think that the Booker prize is highly sensitive to cultural moods and trends. Like many cultural institutions, they need to stay relevant, and the way they select judges reflects that. Again, nothing wrong with this per se, but it can lead to some odd choices.

      I’m not ‘placing myself above’ the judges. I’m suggesting that, in 2019, the imperatives of identity politics seem to have overruled the criterion of quality writing. To back this up, I’ve selected passages from both ‘Girl Woman Other’ and ‘Ten Minutes’, authorial choices and styles that I believe show poor quality.

      Your arguments are ad hominem: instead of disproving my arguments, you’re attacking my character (‘he places himself above Liz Calder…Xiaolu Gao…Afua Hirsch…’). You’re attacking me for ‘defying’ the judges and other more esteemed literary critics, offering examples of their accomplishments as evidence of their impeccable credentials. Well, no matter how impressive someone’s credentials are, they’re not immune to one-sidedness, bias, error, or favouritism. An argument stands on its own merits, regardless of who is making it. Making an evidence-based argument about a book isn’t ‘putting yourself above’ someone, and I would never presume to be ‘better’ than anyone else, regardless of who they are or what they have accomplished.

      More importantly, you haven’t yet undermined my central argument: that the characters in both ‘Girl Woman Other’ and ‘Ten Minutes’ remain trapped within their surface-level identities, partly because their authors (both campaigners) appear to believe that identity is in some way more fundamental than character. If you disagree with me, then please: use passages from either or both books to disprove my assertions, rather than disparaging me for showing insufficient respect to the literati who choose these prizes.

      Thanks again for reading – and again, I’d like to reiterate that this argument was made in good faith, and is not intended to hurt or upset.

      Chris Zacharia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Chris,
        I am sorry if that came across as an ad hominen attack. Not my intention at all. My argument in its simplest form is that your claim that the Booker prize judges are putting ‘identity’ above character is based on your decision (your judgement) that characterisation in these novels is poor. Your article is extremely dismissive of Elif Shafak’s and I’m not attacking you personally in saying that you put yourself above all those other literary figures (far from it), but I am criticising what appears to be a claim of an ‘objective’ dismissal of 10:38. Because you don’t qualify or temper your judgement at all. Frankly, I think that is a mistake. You don’t present this determination as an opinion, or as the result of an aesthetic judgement, you offer no flexibility in any form; you just say it’s terrible; an objective fact.
        So I argue in response that I must compare your word against a lot of other reviewers before accepting your premise ‘as a fact’. In other words, in order for me to accept your point, I would have to accept your word ‘above’ all the other reviewers and judges. So, no, I’m not attacking you, but I am attacking your argument. And yes I chose to be harsh in my argument. And I don’t apologise for pointing out the names of those people you are claiming are wrong.
        Had you lowered your tone somewhat and simply said that, ‘in your judgement’ the book was not so successful, I would have had nothing to argue against, but you didn’t, you offered a fact. You describe it as ‘one of the most mawkish novels you’ll ever encounter’. That’s a pretty damning statement to commit to publication. ‘…a bad novel. Poorly plotted, clumsily told…’ again, those are savage phrases to apply to a published novel and you do not temper or qualify these judgements in any manner. You argued stridently and uncompromisingly, so my response took your tone as its cue.
        The main problem is that your whole argument hinges around that judgement. If that ‘fact’ is seen to be untrue, and 10:38 is seen to be a book which may be judged *according to taste* then the argument about how the characters are depicted becomes only one facet of many that makes a novel good, bad or indifferent, so your conclusion becomes more difficult to reach. To decide that the judges have narrowed their criteria to excess is in itself problematic, but you are avoiding those problems. You have dressed up your Division One opinion in the outfit of a Premiership fact and pushed it out onto the playing field. It was always going to encounter opposition.
        Let’s agree that identity politics appear to have taken a more prominent role in recent prize decisions, as you say above. That much seems fair and reasonable. There can follow a debate about whether that is desirable and there can follow a debate about whether that has come at the expense of the ultimate quality of fiction. But to predicate the debate on the notion that 10:38 ‘is simply terrible’ is excessive.
        For what it is worth, I firmly disagree with both points. I thought 10:38 was daring, skillful, experimental and exciting. I think the emergence of new faces and new perspectives on literature is thrilling. The arrival of a broader perspective means that some long-undoubted assumptions will get challenged and the certainties of literary traditions will, thankfully no longer be the only game in town. Most importantly the idea that fiction can be written ‘without pretension or agenda’ is wholly self-deceptive. Literature and fiction is a pretense. By definition. If it is written without agenda it will be the worst form of naive prop to predominant ruling ideology. There is an awful lot of that, but whether it should be presented as the most admirable form of literature is highly questionable.

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      2. Hi Andy,

        Thanks for your response! No hard feelings – and I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to consider what I’ve said. (I’m replying to my own comment because, for some reason, it won’t let me respond to yours directly…)

        You’re right, I was a bit harsh. I do understand that my tone, which was occasionally adamant, may have encouraged an aggressive riposte. However, every accusation I made was backed by evidence from both books. So when you say that my claims of 10.38 being ‘poorly plotted, clumsily told’ are not qualified in any manner, I have to disagree. The excerpts that I’ve quoted support those claims. You’re right that I didn’t include qualifiers like ‘I think’ or ‘In my opinion’, but that was a deliberate choice. They weaken impact, and I’d rather express myself plainly than dilute my argument.  

        Despite being a bit harsh, I can’t really retract what I’ve said: 10.38 was honestly, hand-on-heart one of the worst novels I’ve ever read. I understand that much of this is taste – maybe other readers place less stock in characterisation – but I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the excerpts I’ve selected. To my mind, they back up my claims (‘poorly told’ etc) – and because Shafak’s authorial voice is so clunky and invasive, it breaks the spell of fiction: its clumsiness revealing the author’s presence. What do you think? Isn’t ‘Leila pulled from her archive’ a clunky way of framing Leila’s reminiscences? Isn’t describing a grocer’s as a store featuring ‘floor-to-ceiling shelves displaying tinned and packaged products’ a superfluous waste of space, and a poor way of setting a scene? I’m genuinely curious to know your opinion on these excerpts and the others quoted in the article. The problem isn’t just the lack of skill and the clunky phrasing – it’s that they actively interrupt the story with their sheer ungainliness. That’s why I say that 10.38 is ‘poorly told’.

        As for the plot, its strength depends to a large extent on the depth and emotional resonance of its characters. Leila is the pivotal character, but she still feels very flat. Even as Leila’s memories gather pace, we learn little about who she is inside. She runs away from home and ends up in a brothel. Her brother dies. Her parents turn their backs on her. Her husband is murdered by the police. But apart from the occasional authorial aside (‘It was the saddest day of her life’), Leila remains a two-dimensional martyr, worshiped by one-dimensional acolytes. 

        The paucity of character is revealed in the dialogue. Look at this sequence:

        ‘What is it?’ Sabotage asked.
        ‘My mother’s remedy for sadness – and other things. She always kept some cologne handy’
        ‘Wait a second’ Nalan demurred. ‘You’re not going to give him that, are you? Your mum’s remedy could ruin a man with no alcohol tolerance’
        ‘But it’s only cologne…’ said Humeyra, suddenly unsure.
        ‘I’m fine’, said Sabotage. He returned the glass, embarrassed at being the centre of attention.

        The deadpan exposition, the mincing dialogue tags (‘suddenly unsure’ … ‘embarrassed at being the centre of attention’), the laborious pointing out of the obvious just in case you missed it: that’s why I said the characters feel as though they lack agency. Even with all this authorial scaffolding, the next line rams Sabotage’s alcohol weakness down your throat: ‘It was a well-known fact that Sabotage could not handle his liquor. A quarter of a glass of wine was enough to destroy him’.

        If the author is telling their story skilfully, they won’t need to resort to something as artless and leaden as straight-up telling the reader ‘Sabotage could not handle his liquor’.  And then Shafak launches into one of her voice-of-god Just So stories, recounting the ‘hilarious’ occasions when Sabotage couldn’t handle his booze. I’m sorry, but it’s just so cloying. There’s no subtlety, no depth. Characters must have complex motives to feel real; none of Leila’s gang have any motives other than to save her body. And as a result it feels very mawkish, because it just doesn’t ring true.

        Finally, the book’s dramatic climax at the Companionless Cemetery is totally unconvincing. Take a look at this extract, featuring the characters planning the heist:

        ‘Okay, I need to tell you something important’ Nalan announced. ‘But please hear me through before you object’
        ‘Oh dear, this is not going to end well’ said Humeyra lackadaisically.
        ‘Don’t be negative’ said Nalan, and turned to Sabotage. ‘Remember that truck of yours, where is it?’
        ‘I don’t have a truck!’
        ‘Don’t your in-laws have one?’
        ‘You mean my father-in-law’s dusty Chevrolet? It’s been ages since he last used that heap of metal. Why are you asking?’
        ‘That’s fine, so long as it does its job. We’re going to need a few more things: shovels, spades, maybe a wheelbarrow’
        ‘Am I the only one who has no idea what she’s talking about?’ said Sabotage.
        Humeyra rubbed the inner corners of her eyes with her fingertips. ‘Don’t worry, none of us has a clue’
        Nalan sat back, her chest heaving. She felt her heart begin to beat faster under the strain of what she was about to say. ‘I propose we all go to the cemetery tonight’
        ‘What!?’ Sabotage rasped.

        The problem in this sequence, as in most of the book’s dialogue, is an over-reliance on exposition (‘You mean my father-in-law’s dusty Chevrolet?’). It makes the dialogue feel wooden; it sounds as though it were contrived purely to chivvy the plot along. If you’re reading this and going, No, this is excellent dialogue, then we’ll simply have to accept a difference in opinion. To me, the examples I’ve shown all display an abundance of weaknesses, all of which conspire to spoil the novel’s atmosphere and render its characters lifeless. 

        Yet you’re right, 10.38 does have moments of levity. Shafak’s descriptions of historical grievances and political manoeuvres are good, and it’s a shame that they’re buried within acres of featureless fiction. Look at this penetrating description: 

        ‘Strange as it was, it seemed to her that the border – where Turkey came to an end and Syria began – was not a fixed dividing line, but a living, breathing thing, a nocturnal creature. It shifted while people on both sides were sound asleep. In the mornings, it adjusted itself again, ever so slightly, to the left or right. Smugglers travelled across the border, back and forth, holding their breaths as they crossed fields full of landmines. Sometimes in the stillness an explosion would be heard and the villagers would pray it was a mule torn to pieces, and not the smuggler it carried’ (p.157)

        These passages are great travelogues or historical essays – and yet it’s revealing that the strongest parts of the text are all socio-political in nature. In the more traditional areas of fiction – dialogue, characterisation, plot – Shafak is much weaker, as the examples above show (at least, they do to me). I wrote a much longer piece about 10.38 but chose to publish only the section relevant to the argument in question. I really believe that Shafak’s novel is poor in many respects, and that the plaudits it has received are primarily for its themes and its author’s accomplishments – not the quality of its prose, plot, or character, all of which are poor – in as far as I think it’s possible to show that any novel is poor. 

        Anyway, it’s a pleasure to talk to someone about books in such depth. I’m really passionate about literature (and rarely does a book make me so unbearably critical, I promise) so thanks for reading! 

        Liked by 2 people

  2. YES! I’m so glad that this essay exists. Politics is ruining novels lately. Chekhov said fiction can pose questions but must never answer them. Novels are not sermons. They convince through their sincerity. If a sensitive, honest writer imagines a story vividly within themselves and can describe for us just how it is — without pretension or agenda, just using language to convey what they see and feel — then we will see it too, and we will draw our own conclusions.

    The identity thing is an issue only non-writers would bring up. Any serious writer will tell you that it takes just as much research, sensitivity, and guesswork to write from the perspective of one’s identical twin (same race, social class, and household) as it does to write about someone of a different background. Anyone who is not me is an alien, a totally foreign being to be explored with great interest and empathy. Highly specific, quirky, individual members of a group with no political ax to grind will give you much more empathy for that group than a cardboard representative. That’s my opinion, anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve not had a chance to read the latest Booker winner, but from what I’ve read about it, it seems like it’s a worthy winner. But you’re quite right that last year’s (joint) winner was atrociously bad. Cannot believe that GWO was even on the long list! Identity politics is a controversial topic these days (something I can’t help think helps the right wing since it divides the left); and my personal take is that it is important to get out of his recognising middle class white straight men and the books about them. But there are countless books that are well written and which include and are written by people who are from more diverse backgrounds – so why and how can the Booker prize give its reward to a book that is riddled with cliche and terrible prose?!

    Surely it’s a case of the internet and woke-ness causing issues once more…

    Liked by 1 person

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