The chair of the judging panel, Margaret Busby, announced the selection of 13 novels for the 2020 Booker Prize longlist (the “Booker dozen”) one of the most interesting and diverse we’ve seen in a long time.
The inclusion of Hilary Mantel’s latest book, and the final in her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Both the two previous books in the trilogy – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – won the Booker Prize, in 2009 and 2012 respectively. If Mantel was to win the 2020 Booker Prize for The Mirror & the Light she would be the first author to ever win three Bookers.
Second, nearly half of the longlist is made up of debut novels, which even the literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Gaby Wood, has admitted is an “unusually high proportion”. This is certainly something the Booker Prize and its judging panel should be commended for.
Like all other creative industries, publishing has been hit hard by the worldwide pandemic. From the cancellation of major events, including the London Book Fair in March and the closing of bookshops, to the postponement of major releases, including Ruth Jones’ second novel Us Three, the 2020 publishing calendar has been turned upside down.
The celebration of debut novels in the Booker Prize longlist, then, is particularly fortuitous, since many debut writers have lost the opportunity to go through the usual new book tours, literary event circuits and bookshop signings.
Finally, it is worth highlighting the kinds of themes and issues dealt with in the longlisted books. The books examine race, homosexuality, gender and gender identity, poverty, class (and in some cases, intersections of them all), homelessness, and climate change.
The subjects foregrounded by many of the longlisted books, therefore, not only speak to current socio-political movements and conflict – most notably Black Lives Matter and the call for active anti-racism. But they also foreshadow the kinds of issues we will undoubtedly come up against (and, in some circumstances, already are) in a post-coronavirus world. In other words, more so than ever before, this longlist feels both born from, and representative of, the very particular moment in history in which we are in.
But only time will tell if this will be reflected in the final shortlist which will be announced on September 15, with the winner being announced in November. If Mantel were to be crowned the winner – receiving her third Booker Prize in just over a decade – it would arguably prove that yet again the Booker Prize acts only to reinforce, as opposed to disrupting as hoped, the systemic inequalities and imbalances of contemporary publishing culture.
Who would be the first author to win three bookers if their nomination won in 2020?