Two of the UK’s big culture prizes were announced this week. In music, there was a general buzz of approval as the rapper and actor Little Simz took the Mercury with her fourth album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. In the literary arena, reactions were more mixed as this year’s Booker prize was awarded to a second novel by the Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka.
The surprise and, in some quarters, disappointment provoked by the Booker result was not predominantly because the prize’s armchair jurists had read Karunatilaka’s book and found it wanting (up until the announcement, only 4,333 copies had been sold in the UK, according to the industry analysts Nielsen BookScan). It was because, without being that exciting thing – a debut writer – he is a literary outsider, and it’s in the nature of the showboating around the Booker that everyone scraps for a novel they already know.
Though they belong to very different worlds, there are some similarities between the latest Mercury and Booker laureates. Little Simz is a DIY operator who has released all of her albums on her own label. Karunatilaka self-published his first novel. His second, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a bold and uncompromising magical-realist epic set in war-torn Sri Lanka in 1989 and narrated by a ghost, owes its existence to a leap of faith by a tiny independent press, Sort of Books.
However, this cheering story of perseverance and belief was overshadowed by a disheartening backwash on social media, some of it from people who should have known better than to transform disappointment that their favourite had lost into criticism of a winner they hadn’t read. Little Simz knows a thing or two about being trapped by pre-formed opinion. “Instead of sayin ‘simz is underrated’ why don’t you stop being sheep and change the narrative” she tweeted a year ago.
The Booker has always courted controversy, and owes some of its success to the legendary spats it has inspired through the years. Part of the knockabout is to speculate what slant a particular collection of judges will have: will they be populist, high-minded, or simply perverse? However, the foundation stone of any jury prize is that judgment is delegated to a panel whose responsibility is to read, watch or listen carefully and thoughtfully, and reach a consensus.
The Mercury was judged by a panel of 13, who were thought to have got it right. The five-strong Booker jury, chaired by the former director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor, may or may not have done so. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with their judgment, having read all the contenders. Nor is there any fault in judging a book to be below the gold standard of previous winners. However, it is not only rude but irresponsible and reactionary to wade in without doing the legwork.
The narrative has already changed for Little Simz. Karunatilaka’s Booker win will bring many more readers to his novel, and enable them to make up their own minds. In the meantime, we should celebrate both for who they are, rather than criticise one of them for who he isn’t.