It is perhaps not the most glowing endorsement of contemporary literature that what Zadie Smith declared ‘the best book – in any medium – I have read about our current moment’ contains very few words. Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (Granta, 2018) is a 204-page graphic novel set in a fledgling Trump hellscape: through the chilling tale of a missing woman, it etches out a contemporary condition rinsed clean of intimacy, trust and truth. Like a tattered dove in an open hand, Drnaso’s storyboards offer up the many small cruelties inflicted upon us by an impersonal contemporary world that remains intent on leaving us speechless. Perhaps the laconism is apposite, after all.
Drnaso does not regard Sabrina as a novel, or ‘doesn’t think in those terms’ – ‘I’m very much a cartoonist’. Curious, then, that the book has become the first graphic novel to ever be nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. But while, in formal terms, Sabrina stands apart from this year’s nominees, it is very much at home on a 13-strong longlist that depicts a world on the brink of collapse. This selection of novels – often uncomfortable, often unhinged, infrequently knowing of hope – is our contemporary experience told through distressing tales – the only way it can be.
Accordingly, trauma scores high, whether inherent, inflicted or felt afresh. Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (Headline, 2018) tracks three young men as they navigate a 48-hour race riot on a north London estate. Gunaratne’s anxious fiction, Shahidha Bari writes, ‘hovers on the fringes of real events’, a phrase that similarly lingers over several of this year’s nominated texts. In preparation for The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape, 2018), Rachel Kushner spent time in a number of US prisons, while Richard Powers’s The Overstory (William Heinemann, 2018) lolls somewhere between environmentalist saga and crooning love song to the enduring splendour of the natural. In Milkman (Faber, 2018), Anna Burn recounts the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the perspective of a disinterested 18-year-old girl but, in contouring a nation ‘conditioned too, through years of personal and communal suffering […] to be overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger’, summons a bursting catalogue of international regimes of oppression and the echoes of violence that linger in their wake.
When compared with the ‘Man Booker Dozen’ of 2017, tethered as it was by the likes of Paul Auster, Arundhati Roy and Ali Smith, this year’s longlist is fleet of foot. And while graced by the long-established crime writer Belinda Bauer and the returning Michael Ondaatje – who won the Booker in 1992 and was recently awarded the Golden Booker (a one-off ‘Booker of Bookers’ commemorating the award’s 50th anniversary this year) – it is the younger writers and those peddling debut novels who shimmer. Sophie Mackintosh’s needling debut, The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton, 2018), sees three sisters flee reality for an island facility upon which, removed as it is from the cacophonous torments of men, ‘women can be healthful and whole’. The idyll is imposture. Marshalled by a King Lear-esque patriarch who has devised a torturous programme of recuperation, the island communicates a single known truth: abuse, as in life, is indelible.
While the poet Robin Robertson will win plaudits for his debut The Long Take (Picador, 2018), channelled through an occasionally slick melding of verse and prose, it is the young Sally Rooney who eclipses the competition. A swift second to an inappropriately lauded first (Conversations with Friends, Faber, 2017), Rooney’s Normal People (Faber, 2018) touts a simple conceit: we trace the inseparable Connell and Marianne (at times friends, at others enemies, at other lovers) from a childhood spent in a small Irish town to Trinity College in Dublin. But beneath this unassuming Bildungsroman and the disarming softness through which Rooney speaks, there are universes. I found love and pain in this book in equal measure. Often, I could not discern between the two.
When I wrote that this list mimics our contemporary experience, I did so in good faith but, in my use of ‘our’, I did so with presumption. Whether intimately or otherwise, a clutch of the socio-political anxieties teased forth by these texts – inner-city crime, prison reform, environmental collapse, women’s subjugation, digital fatigue – feel critical to me, a European writer. Thus, I presumed you; thus we; thus ours. My egocentrism provides a neat segue into a discussion of the central problematic of this year’s longlist: its staggering lack of global diversity. Of the 13 nominees, whittled from a record-breaking 171 submissions: five are from the UK, three are from Ireland and the USA respectively, while two hail from Canada. And, while the assembled novelists might voice concerns that feel urgent, as the critic Arifa Akbar questioned shortly after the list was announced: ‘these are Northern Hemisphere anxieties’.
I cannot fully support Akbar’s statement: many of the apprehensions floated by these authors are intrinsically human in nature and, in this, may ghost across physical terrains without little knowledge of the changing landscape below. Furthermore, the narratives of slavery, exploitation and relocation that convene within Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (Serpentine, 2018), the tale of an 11-year-old Bajan slave’s journey from the Caribbean to the Arctic, care little for geography or epoch. But it should be acknowledged that, since 2013, when Man Booker made the decision to widen the entry pool from Commonwealth authors to any writing in English, the prize has developed a disheartening taste for the Euro-American, a result, in part, of American authors colonizing the spots previously reserved for Britain’s former territories. In 2017, the 13-strong long-list included six UK novelists, four from the USA and two from Ireland. In 2016, there were also six from the UK, but five from the US. Admittedly, 2015 showed promise, but in 2014 we were back on track: six British, five American, one Irish. While the decision to expand eligibility promised something more international in scope, an award better positioned to recognize the countless stories being told beyond the walls of the Western canon, the show of faux-inclusivity has heralded little but a recentralization of focus and a barefaced abandonment of the very authors that it was allegedly serving.
While I ardently refuse to support anything related to the Commonwealth, laced as it is with the legacies of imperial and colonialist subjugation, it is hard to contest that the Man Booker guidelines of old ushered into the spotlight mesmerizing writing from far more diverse backgrounds. (Aravind Adiga, Peter Carey, Eleanor Catton, J.M. Coetzee, Kiran Desai, Kazuo Ishiguro, V. S. Naipaul, Ben Okri, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie: close your eyes and point a finger.) But I also find it hard to agree with the 30 publishers who, in February of this year, publicly called for the Man Booker to reinstate its former parameters. To enact such an about-turn would do a disservice to American authors such as Paul Beatty, Ottessa Moshfegh, George Saunders and David Szalay, whose ambitious novels (some shortlisted, others long-, others victorious) burst at the figurative binding with formal experimentation and lashing social critique.
So, how to proceed? How to ensure that the Booker’s ‘global outlook’ does not reassert the dominance of Euro-American authors but instead amplifies a chorus of international voices? Pitch one involves a decentralizing of the judging panel (of this year’s illustrious five, two are based in New York while three reside in the UK – two of those in London) and a reconsideration of the publishers’ entry quotas, which favour established publishing houses with a history of longlisted authors to the detriment of the younger outlets that champion more radical fictions.
Pitch two would involve the introduction of a rule stipulating that longlists include a number of authors from each represented territory. Counter-arguments to this may well include the word ‘meritocracy’ and perhaps that most haunted of phrases: ‘positive discrimination’. If this is indeed your opinion, ask yourself why the ‘best writing’ might originate from the UK as opposed to, say, subcontinental African countries, Australia or India, which is the second largest publisher of English-language literature in the world. Then peruse the history of the British Commonwealth. Then look to the many wrongs that are still left to right.
When, in February of this year, former Man Booker prize-winners Julian Barnes and Peter Carey criticised the decision to allow American writers to enter the fray, Gaby Wood, literary director of Man Booker, opted for diplomacy: ‘The world is open. We need to hear from everyone’. Actually, it isn’t. It should be, but it isn’t. We are suffering through an era defined by precarity, inequality, division and dislocation and, now more than ever, it is critical that we hear testimony from the fringes of what has naively been defined as the ‘centre of the world’. Fiction might well allow for that. But to do so, it needs institutions such as Man Booker to reassess their priorities and reinvest in transnationalism, diversity and the utterly problematic; to remember what fiction has done, what fiction currently does and what fiction might do. If you want to appear radical, include a graphic novel on a longlist of 13; if you want to be radical, attend to your own shortcomings and build something better.
Endnote: While I cannot claim to be an avid reader of graphic novels, the importance of works such as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS (1980), Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell (1999) and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) cannot be questioned. Thus, I would never begrudge the inclusion of similar titles on longlists such as these. However, if the Man Booker is indeed founded in a desire to unearth those fictions that best reflect and refract our sorry era in a progressive, profound manner, then it is high time that the institution reconsiders its policy that book-length short story collections are ineligible, something that seems farcical when we consider the abundance of rampantly experimental short fiction that has been published in the past few years (and the scarcity of grants and awards available to its writers). Eley Williams, June Caldwell, Claire Louise-Bennett, Leone Ross, Jennifer Rahim, Jenny Zhang, Lydia Davis, David Hayden, Julianne Pachico, Stuart Dybeck, Irenosen Okojie, Camilla Grudova, Marina Enriquez, Akhil Sharma: Ask short stories for the world and they will give you something fleeting, distracted and irreconcilable. They will give you something honest.
Main image: Books in the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist. Courtesy: Man Booker Prize