Darragh McManus: 'Split Booker prize is a sign of our 'woke' times'

If there’s anything more pointless than awarding prizes for books, as if they’re athletes rather than artworks, it’s the storm-in-a-teacup kerfuffles which sporadically break out around their announcement. And those, at least, are entertaining, in a daft, “two bald men fighting over a comb” kind of way.

So it is with the brouhaha surrounding this year’s Booker Prize, with judges flouting their own rules by handing it to two books. Like a literary version of a horseracing photo-finish, two sleek thoroughbreds – Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other – couldn’t be separated by the panel, despite Booker director Gaby Wood repeatedly insisting they had to pick one.

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Judging chairman Peter Florence said even a vote couldn’t decide the matter, though how that’s possible with a group of five isn’t clear. Surely, by definition, an uneven number can’t divide evenly?

Now, I absolutely revere Margaret Atwood as an author – and yes, I was reading her years before that overwrought telly show made her popular with the kind of people who declare “television is the new novel” – and am happy to see her lauded in any way. Yet this all seems a bit silly, not to mention perplexing.

Florence justified the decision thus: “These are two books we started not wanting to give up, and the more we talked about them the more we treasured both of them and wanted them both as winners.”

Right. Well, it’s vague enough. Personally, I’d be slightly cynical about the whole thing. In fact, I’d have a suspicion that – consciously or unconsciously – the judges wanted, very badly, to award the Booker to these two writers, for political reasons as much as any literary ones.

Evaristo is the first black woman and first black English author to ever win it. Her book is a celebration of (mostly non-white) women – straight, gay and transgender.

Atwood’s novel, meanwhile, is a follow-up to her seminal feminist story The Handmaid’s Tale. It, and she, are incredibly “hot” with self-styled progressives at the moment – including here in Ireland, where her work was co-opted by the Repeal side during last year’s abortion referendum.

(Ironically, Atwood herself is far from a follow-the-herd ideologue. She’s a tough bit of stuff who knows, and speaks, her own mind).

So suspicious old me reckons the Booker people backed what they consider the “right” horse in the current climate. The odds on, say, Michel Houellebecq taking home the garland are astronomical in 2019: too male, too straight, too white. (Also, in fairness, an obnoxious misanthrope whose stuff is vastly overrated.)

But look at who we did pick!, the jury can now cry. Two women! Who write about women! Marginalised women! Women’s rights! Feminist issues! One of them isn’t white! Whoo, minorities! Hurray for us!

The arts have become very ideological and political in recent times: both the work and the surrounding culture, including awards. Agent call-outs for books that “celebrate diversity”. Novels published by theme, to fit a “woke” marketing demographic, not for their individual worth.

It can be unintentionally funny. Last year one major house announced, in a “praise how right-on I am” fanfare, its commitment to greater workforce diversity. Some wag drily asked if this meant they’d be firing some of their 90pc female workforce to balance the scales – no response was forthcoming.

We see this tedious moralising and sermonising in other art forms too. Look at all the grandstanding Oscars speeches and fatuous black dress “protests”, the undergrad lecturing of a certain stripe of studiously earnest musician.

Politics seeps in and poisons everything. It’s even warping people’s perception of reality: a famous English author bemoaned, a few years ago, all the “old white men” winning the Nobel Prize. In fact, over the last three decades only around a third of laureates have come from that despicable cohort – and just one in the last eight years.

For someone who loves literature, in particular, this is horrible, really. Art, especially fiction, should be the expression of an individual consciousness: nuance, ambiguity, complexity, the right to think for yourself. Ideology cannot abide any of those things; they’re totally incompatible. (A point splendidly made, as it happens, by one M Atwood.)

I’m not sure, anyway, that these woke stunts do anything constructive for women, or ethnic minorities, or any other group. They certainly do nothing for literature; ideology never does.

Just look at Stalinist Russia: great place for cabbage soup, but their books sucked.

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