Booker Prize 2019 Goes to Two: Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Termed a ‘shock announcement’ by the Booker Foundation in its media messaging, a 1993 rule against splitting the Booker is defied by this year’s jury, led by Hay Festival founder Peter Florence.

Bernardine Evaristo, left, and Margaret Atwood at London’s Guildhall for the announcement of their joint win of the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction Image: Booker Prize Foudation

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Atwood Appears Saturday at Frankfurter Buchmesse
In what will be for some a controversial move, the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction has been given to both Canada’s Margaret Atwood and the UK’s Bernardine Evaristo at the annual ceremony at London’s Guildhall.

Atwood is being honored for The Testaments (Penguin Random House / Chatto & Windus), the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, part of the Gilead body of material that has given Atwood’s career explosive new life with the success of the Hulu television adaptation and that series’ new content.

Atwood now is the fourth author to win the Booker twice. Her The Blind Assassin won in 2000.

She has been shortlisted for four other books previously: The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Cat’s Eye (1989), Alias Grace (1996) and Oryx and Crake (2003).

The Testaments is the third sequel to have won the prize, following Pat Parker’s The Ghost Road (1995) and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (2012).

Bernardine Evaristo is being honored for Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin Random House / Hamish Hamilton). Evaristo is the first black woman to win a Booker.

Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth work of fiction. She also is a writer of essays, drama and content for BBC radio.

Despite the consternation and/or glee of this “joint prize,” as the foundation terms it, this is not the first time the judges have gone rogue and insisted on a split prize. Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton won in 1974 and Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth won in 1992.

In 1993, the rules were changed so that only one author could win the prize. That 1993 regulation now has been cast aside.

Booker Foundation literary director Gaby Wood is quoted tonight by the Booker’s press people, saying, “Over an agonizing five hours, the 2019 Booker Prize judges discussed all of the much-loved books on their shortlist, and found it impossible to single out one winner.

“They were not so much divided as unwilling to jettison any more when they finally got down to two, and asked if they might split the prize between them.

“On being told that it was definitively against the rules, the judges held a further discussion and chose to flout them. They left the judging room happy and proud, their twin winners gesturing towards the six they would have wanted, had it been possible to split the prize any further.”

Peter Florence

In what some will no doubt call a victims-of-good-literature rationale, jury chief Peter Florence was also quoted, saying, “This 10-month process has been a wild adventure. In the room today we talked for five hours about books we love.

“Two novels we cannot compromise on. They are both phenomenal books that will delight readers and will resonate for ages to come.”

Florence’s fellow jurors this year are:

  • Liz Calder, the former fiction publisher and editor of Gollancz, Jonathan Cape, and Bloomsbury
  • Xiaolu Guo, the Chinese-British novelist and filmmaker of work including this year’s Five Men and a Caravaggio
  • Afua Hirsch, journalist, broadcaster and former attorney
  • Joanna MacGregor, composer, pianist, and recording artist

The winner of the 2019 Booker Prize receives £50,000 (US$62,835). In this case, the purse is to be split between the two winning authors.

The winner of a Booker also normally can expect to benefit from a significant boost in sales and visibility, of course.

Peter Florence: ‘A Wild Adventure’

At the Guildhall ceremony on Monday evening (October 14) in London, last year’s Booker Prize for Fiction winner, Anna Burns, speaking. Image: Booker Prize Foundation

Publishing Perspectives readers will detect a double connection between the looming Frankfurter Buchmesse here in Germany this year and recent prize announcements, the one tonight and the other last Thursday.

Atwood is scheduled to be part of a Saturday evening gala event at the Messe Frankfurt’s Congress Center, as we’ve reported. Organizers of that event, which also features Ken Follett, Maja Lunde, Elif Shafak—who was shortlisted for the Booker (no threeway joy there, apparently)—and Colson Whitehead.

The Saturday tour is part of Frankfurt’s BookFest, and tickets for it, maybe moving faster than before now (€24.50, or US$27.25), are available here.

And as we reported today, Olga Tokarczuk, the winner with translator Jennifer Croft of the 2018 Booker International Prize, will address the trade show’s opening press conference on Tuesday (October 15), having been named the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. She speaks in the Frankfurt Pavilion on the Agora.

The four other shortlisted authors for the Booker Prize for Fiction this year were:

  • Lucy Ellmann (UK/USA), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little, Brown)
  • Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)
  • Elif Shafak (Turkey/UK), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)

As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall, the Booker’s longlist was announced in July.

The shortlist featured four female authors—Atwood, Ellmann, Evaristo and Shafak—and two men, Rushdie and Obiama. Nigeria’s Obiama was shortlisted for a second time, and An Orchestra of Minorities is his second novel.

The shortlist for the world’s leading prize for fiction in English was chosen from 151 novels published in the UK or Ireland between October 1, 2018, and September 30 of this year. The Booker Prize for Fiction, first awarded in 1969, is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

In the week following last year’s winner announcement—you’ll find our coverage here—sales of Milkman by Anna Burns increased by 880 percent from 963 in the week prior to the announcement to 9,446 in the week following the announcement, then a further 99 percent (9,446 to 18,786) the following week.

Each shortlisted author receives £2,500 (US$2,997) and a specially bound edition of her or his book.

At the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction news conference, from left, Gaby Wood, Margaret Atwood, Bernardine Evaristo, Peter Florence. Image: Booker Prize Foundation

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Booker Prize for Fiction is here. And more from us on publishing and book awards in general is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.