Should Literary Prizes Privilege Authors Tackling Current Social Issues?

There have never been so many books published and sold as in today’s world. Books are seen as a hobby, or a pastime, something to enjoy and embrace. But as Mario Vargas Llosa reminds us, they are occasionally seen as a dangerous “vehicle of subversive ideas”, and their writers feared as criminals. Sometimes amid the whirlwind narratives of the latest best-seller, readers can forget the power of literature as a political tool.

Authors and their books are a vital mouthpiece of support towards certain movements and campaigns. Most literature is rooted in the political, social and cultural climate of the time in which it’s written and illustrates how impactful certain decisions made within that world can be on the present and future. A book long-awaited by fans was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the novel that recently won the Booker Prize jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Atwood’s literature has sold millions of copies worldwide, with particular mention to The Handmaid’s Tale, her newest novel’s predecessor of 34 years. In light of the #MeToo era and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential race, the red-cloaked, white-bonneted characters became an international symbol of defiance against misogyny  Her iconic take on the feminist narrative might have left her with a certain responsibility to address these issues once more within her literature, especially with the ever-growing momentum of the feminist movement worldwide.

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Evaristo offers a voice to a community that previously hasn’t had such a platform within the publishing and literary communities. Her new novel embraces diversity, but also the rich, expansive history of Britain approached from a distinct viewpoint. In a society that is pushing for equality, Evaristo’s work ignites a new experience for readers, and focuses on a plethora of social issues that are common to our knowledge, but from an inspiring, fresh perspective. Besides, what better platform than the internationally known Booker Prize to help her work come to the forefront of the literary community?

The controversial sharing of this year’s Booker Prize caused a stir. After the second joint win of the prize in 1992, the Foundation made it mandatory that from then on only one winner could be chosen. Claire Allfree is a clear supporter of this rule, a position she made clear when commenting that this year’s decision meant the judges hadn’t chosen a winner at all: “If two authors can win, why not three authors next year? Why not all six?”.

Another controversial win this year was Peter Handke, 76, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing made “provocative, inappropriate and unclear statements on political issues”, most notably his support for the Serbs during the devastating 1990s wars in Yugoslavia. Nobel committee member Rebecka Kärde believed he “absolutely deserves” to win, while Kosovo President Hashim Thaci stated that the decision “brought immense pain to countless victims” of the massacres, genocides and detrimental warfare of the 1990s.

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The valuing of commentary on social issues, both past and present, is populating the literature prize community. More and more writers like Atwood, Evaristo and Handke have been winning these prestigious awards, but is this because of their narratives being deep-rooted in the societal issues of today? Literary prizes may favour these works because they can be recognised as either supporting or acknowledging important social issues. However, shouldn’t prizes be awarded to the pieces with the best narrative, storytelling mastery and diverse use of techniques?

What about the books that are not obviously capturing the current zeitgeist, but are notably prize-worthy? What about the writers who don’t have such a vast platform to display their views?  It is unfair that they are neglected for no reason other than not being so outwardly engaged with current society. Yet, the connection to society is so relevant within literature that it must be recognised as a key factor when choosing a winning book. What we need are more books highlighting the current spirit of our time, books that can educate us, engage us, and empower us; this way, they may be able to inform more of a change within society, stimulating their audiences to think in different ways and potentially acting upon the new ideas within the literature.

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While the prizes should be tackling these current issues, they need to be aware of avoiding becoming too politicised. They should make clear the qualities they look for in the literature they award so that there is complete transparency with the public and the winning authors’ contenders to avoid any unnecessary accusations. Furthermore, making clear their thought-processes in choosing their candidates, and the ways they present themselves on a worldwide social platform, may allow them to avoid any comments that could be construed as political.

Literature is timeless and should be celebrated and recognised on a prestigious platform no matter a work’s links with the socio-political climate. Although the books that have the ability to catalyse discussions surrounding the current zeitgeist should not necessarily be prized, they should most definitely be praised.

Mickey White

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