By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Lynch: ‘Partly an Attempt at Radical Empathy’There was a telling moment in today’s (November 26) press briefing on the selection of the Irish author Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song as the winner of the 2023 Booker Prize for Fiction: at least one member of the news media seemed seriously dubious that the book, set in an authoritarian Ireland, hadn’t been chosen for its political timeliness.
Jury chair Esi Edugyan held her ground, patiently but resolutely responding that while the book’s echoes in many nations’ quickening far-right currents were certainly “in the discussion,” this is, she said, “a literary prize for the most polished, accomplished work … . That was the guiding principle. Does this book succeed artistically?”
Lynch has become the fifth Irish author to win the Booker Prize, after Iris Murdoch, John Banville, Roddy Doyle, and Anne Enright. He was one of four Irish authors longlisted for this year’s honor.
When he was interviewed by the Booker team itself, he said, “I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria—the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference. Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves. So I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.”
Prophet Song is published by Juliet Mabey‘s Oneworld Publications (August 24), making it one of the two Booker-shortlisted titles this year released by an independent house. A publishing force to be reckoned with, Oneworld has won the prize twice before, in consecutive years, with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015 and with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.
Lynch receives £50,000 (US$63,015) and was given the statuette this evening at London’s Old Billingsgate—the Erte-esque Iris as it’s named now—created in 1969 by the late author-illustrator Jan Pieńkowski. Last year’s winner, author Shehan Karunatilaka gave him the figurine, and the event was hosted by Samira Ahmed and broadcast live as a special episode of BBC Radio 4 Front Row. It was also livestreamed in an hour-long online program. Each of the shortlisted authors received £2,500 (US$3,150) and hand-bound editions of their books, designed by six fellows of the Designer Bookbinders society.
Prophet Song was selected from 163 titles published between October 1, 2022, and September 30, and submitted to the prize by publishers. The Booker Prize is open to “unified and sustained works of fiction” by writers of any nationality, written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland.
As to the artistic success question, here’s a snippet of text from the book, which is written in long sequences of text rather than in paragraphs:
“She looks at the phone and reaches back into the call, following her voice into Larry’s phone, the signal has to be relayed to reach Larry’s mobile, it is picked up and relayed through a network transmitter. Of a sudden she hears her own voice as though she were listening to herself in another room. Talk to him, emergency powers or not, there are still constitutional rights in this country. She is suddenly cold, stands abruptly out of her chair and moves toward the office kitchen, thinking, in other countries, yes, but we don’t have that kind of carry-on here, the gardaÍ, the state, they are not allowed to listen in on calls, there would be outrage. She thinks about the car last night parked outside the house, she thinks about the GNSB and the whispers she has heard about what is said to be going on, stepping now towards the kitchen she feels for a moment as though she does not know the room.”
In the supple, hypnotic voice that Lynch brings to his work, it’s impossible not to think of Thursday’s (November 23) riot in Dublin, when rumors online about a knife attack alleged that the perpetrator was an immigrant, an Algerian, triggering far-right unrest that morphed into cars being torched, vandals attacking what The New York Times reported were “hotels and hostels thought to be housing migrants.”
Isabella Kwai and Adam Satariano in that Times article quoted the Garda Síochána’s commissioner, Drew Harris, telling reporters, “‘We have not seen a public disorder situation like this before. A group of people had taken “a thimbleful of facts” and added “a bathful of assumptions — hateful assumptions.'”
Surely there can be nothing wrong with formidable literary fiction capability dovetailing with such contextual precision with the political dangers of its age.
And yet, “Like everybody else,” Lynch said this evening in a post-ceremony news conference, “I was astonished” by the explosive unrest in Dublin last week. “And at the same time, I recognize the truth that this kind of energy is always there under the surface. I didn’t write this book to specifically say, ‘Here’s a warning,’ I wrote the book to articulate the message that the things that are happening in this book are occurring timelessly throughout the ages.”
Edugyan: ‘Descending Into Totalitarianism’
In announcing the win, the Booker Foundation itself goes right to the political verisimilitude of the piece, naming the book in its press materials today, a book that “captures some of the biggest social and political anxieties of our age, from the rise of political extremism to the global plight of refugees.”
Edugyan, speaking for the jury, said, “From that first knock at the door, Prophet Song forces us out of our complacency as we follow the terrifying plight of a woman seeking to protect her family in an Ireland descending into totalitarianism. We felt unsettled from the start, submerged in—and haunted by—the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world. He flinches from nothing, depicting the reality of state violence and displacement and offering no easy consolations.
“Here the sentence is stretched to its limits—Lynch pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness.
“He has the heart of a poet, using repetition and recurring motifs to create a visceral reading experience. This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave. With great vividness, Prophet Song captures the social and political anxieties of our current moment. Readers will find it soul-shattering and true, and will not soon forget its warnings.”
- Novelist Esi Edugyan (chair), twice-shortlisted for the Booker Prize
- Adjoa Andoh, actor, writer and director
- Mary Jean Chan, poet, lecturer and critic
- James Shapiro, author and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, a specialist in Shakespeare
- Robert Webb, actor and writer
And the foundation’s CEO Gaby Wood, said, “This year’s judges are so wide-ranging in their tastes, and so delightedly different in their styles of reading, that they developed a rule of thumb in order to find books they all loved. If they asked themselves, ‘What is this book doing?’ they could analyze its technique, or the ways in which it advanced the art of fiction. If they asked themselves, ‘What is this book doing to me?’ they could express their subjective responses, and identify novels that had an emotional impact.
“For this panel, the best books were those that answered and rewarded both of these questions. And the judges established at the start of the final meeting that any of the six books on the shortlist would be a worthy winner. Prophet Song is composed of masterful sentences, and packs a profound emotional punch.”
Lynch is himself a journalist, a native of Limerick raised in County Donegal. From 2007 to 2011, he was Ireland’s Sunday Tribune chief film critic and has written on cinema for the Sunday Times, now based in Dublin.
The Booker Prize for Fiction 2023 Shortlist
Two of the six books on the list this time were debut publications. One publisher—Penguin Random House—is behind two of the six shortlisted titles. Pan Macmillan and HarperCollins UK have one each. Independent publishers Granta and Juliet Mabey’s Oneworld published one shortlisted book each.
|Study for Obedience
|If I Survive You
|HarperCollins UK / 4th Estate
|This Other Eden
|Penguin Random House / Hutchinson Heinemann
|Pan Macmillan / Picador
|The Bee Sting
|Penguin Random House / Hamish Hamilton
A ‘Prophet’ Less Quickly ‘Sung’ in the States
As Publishing Perspectives international publishing industry readers know, the Booker Foundation has led the way among the multitudinous prizes in the world book industry, in reporting some of the market sales impact a Booker win can have for a novel, its author, and publisher.
“As the winner,” the foundation reports tonight, “Lynch can expect instant international recognition and a dramatic increase in global sales. The 2022 Booker Prize was won by Karunatilaka for his The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. After the win, sales of the book soared to more than 115,000 across all formats, according to its publisher Sort of Books. It has now been translated into 29 languages and has outsold Karunatilaka’s previous novel, Chinaman, by over 2,000 percent.”
The lead taken by the Booker team in demonstrating market effect now has been handsomely followed, as we’ve reported, by the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, and the £25,000 British Academy Book Prize for Cultural Understanding.
Tonight’s Booker news, however, may frustrate United States consumers and put a delay on the broader market effects that the Booker’s top recognition can generate.
Major US retailers appear not to have the book available in print formats until between December 12 and 14, while audiobook editions may not be offered in the States until mid-February, and then only in CD, despite Gerry O’Brien’s reading of the work being available in the United Kingdom since September. We’ll watch for chances to update US availability details here as more is learned.
And our international readers, may want to read Richard Charkin’s column today about language vs. territorial rights, particularly in the English-language book markets.
More from Publishing Perspectives on the Booker Prize for Fiction is here. More on the International Booker Prize is here, more from Publishing Perspectives on both Booker Prize programs is here. And more from us on the international industry’s many book and publishing awards programs overall is here.