Douglas Stuart Wins the 2020 Booker Prize for ‘Shuggie Bain’

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One of four debut novelists among the six writers shortlisted this year, Stuart wins for ‘Shuggie Bain,’ also a National Book Award finalist.

Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart talks with the BBC’s John Wilson after being named the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction in a program streamed from London’s Roundhouse. Image: BBC/Booker Foundation

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

Stuart: ‘Incredibly Healing for Me’
The Booker Prize Foundation this evening (November 19) in London has named Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart the winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in its 2020 program for his book Shuggie Bain (Pan Macmillan / Picador).

In an exchange with the BBC’s John Wilson, he said, “For 30 years, I’ve carried an awful lot of loss and love and pain, and wanted to tell the story about what it was like to grow up queer in Glasgow with a parent you loved but couldn’t save.”

The book’s translation publication rights are expected now to be sold into a wide array of international languages and territories, based on previous Booker winners’ experience. Last year’s Booker win Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, for example, is being published into 32 territories. Publishing Perspectives will update our coverage with Douglas Stuart’s book’s rights-sale progress as we’re provided with that information.

Shuggie Bain—which also was shortlisted in fiction at Wednesday night’s US National Book Awards—”is a work of fiction,” Stuart said. “But writing the book was incredibly healing for me.”

Stuart is the second Scot to win the Booker, the first bein James Kelman in 1994.

“I think men from the west coast of Scotland are not ever expected to be able to express their feelings or the finer feelings. So art is a great receptacle for that. To be able to connect with people and to ask for empathy from readers and be really given it has been hugely cathartic.”

The Grove Atlantic US cover of the book, released in February

Stuart made a point of thanking Peter Blackstock, his Grove Atlantic editor, saying after the ceremony in answer to a journalist’s question that Grove was the book’s first publisher after a sustained round of rejections from publishing players who said they didn’t know how to market the book.

The book was released in the States on February 11, just weeks before coronavirus-containment measures closed American bookstores.

Douglas receives £50,000 (US$66,236), while each author shortlisted gets £2,500 (US$3,3118).

The other three debut novelists on this year’s shortlist, unusual for so many debuts, are Diane Cook, Avni Doshi, and Brandon Taylor. This is gratifying as a sign of  new literary talent entering the crowded awards scene in the United Kingdom.

The jury produced their statement of rationale for the book—a unanimous decision, Publishing Perspectives understands—saying, “Douglas Stuart’s debut creates an amazingly intimate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage, and love.

“Shuggie Bain is a heart-breaking, heart-warming yet unsentimental novel which gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalized, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. Set in working class Glasgow in the Thatcher years, the book evokes the relationship of a mother and son, both of whom reach for sparkle, glamour, and adventure that are hard to find in their economic and social circumstances.

“Stuart manages to treat his characters with an impressive level of dignity, humour and compassion, as well as an unsparing clarity of vision.

“We admired the book’s immersive, nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values, and we were deeply moved by the portrait of the mother, Agnes, in her only-partly-futile battle against alcoholism, poverty and the rigid gender norms of her culture.

“Shuggie Bain is a desperately sad, but almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”

Also Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction

The six writers of the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist on the BBC’s stream of the award ceremony. Image: BBC/Booker Foundation

Author Country Title Publisher, Imprint
Diane Cook USA The New Wilderness OneWorld
Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwe This Mournable Body Faber & Faber
Avni Doshi USA Burnt Sugar Penguin Random House, Hamish Hamilton
Maaza Mengiste Ethiopia/USA The Shadow King Canongate
Brandon Tayler USA Real Life Daunt Books Publishing, Originals

The program this evening was easily the most slickly produced publishing award presentation of the year—bordering at times, if attractively, on being overproduced—as when the Chineke quartet onstage played the first bars of Handel’s Hallelujah just before jury chair Margaret Busby named the winner.

The British cover, from Pan Macmillan / Picador, released in August

Short commentaries on the importance and vitality of reading came on tape from Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall—a longtime supporter of the Booker—and from Barack Obama, the first volume of whose memoir, A Promised Land (Penguin Random House), was just released on Tuesday.

It was the timing of that release, as a matter of fact, that prompted the Booker to move its award ceremony to this evening.

Seen live for a chat with Wilson on screen from his home was Booker- and Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro talked about how the most meaningful round of competition is “with the reader,” as the consumer base responds to a prize-winning book.

By the time Stuart was named, the BBC had had its Radio 4 and BBC World Service audiences join the stream from an elegantly wide Roundhouse stage, perhaps lit by the same blue-glow designers who have staged the Nitto ATP Tour tennis finals going on this week over at London’s O2.

Booker- and Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro talks with the BBC’s John Wilson during the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction award show. Image: BBC/Booker Foundation

Seamlessly shot and mixed, the program demonstrated the wisdom of accessing full professional production values for publishing events of this kind in which the widest audience is accustomed to such high-quality work as the BBC can deliver.

Also appearing onstage with host John Wilson was last year’s winner Bernardine Evaristo, who engaged in a taped chat with her 2019 co-winner, Margaret Atwood. They teased comfortably with each other about the age at which one wins a Booker and its potential on a career.

Evaristo, who recently gave a conference keynote at Frankfurter Buchmesse, laughed with Atwood, saying that she’d been so thrilled with her own win of the Booker last year that she’d been afraid she’d be hit by a car and have it all taken away from her.

“But you weren’t hit by a car,” said Atwood smiling broadly, twice a Booker winner, herself.

And after the ceremony, in a news conference with several journalists, Stuart was asked what he’d do with his £50,000 check. He’d made a bet on that check with his husband, he said, with a rueful smile–a bet that he wouldn’t win.

Bernardine Evaristo, 2019 co-winner with Margaret Atwood of the Booker Prize for Fiction, speaks with John Wilson at the Roundabout in London. Image: BBC/Booker Foundation


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Booker Prize for Fiction is here. And more from us on awards programs in general is hereMore on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing 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 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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