Followers of the Booker Prize for Fiction were shocked this year after a surprise, rule-breaking twist resulted in a double win. Both Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo have been crowned this year’s joint winners; Atwood for her dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale sequel, The Testaments, and Evaristo for her experimental novel Girl, Woman, Other, a meditation on black womanhood which follows the intertwined lives of twelve different characters.
The six shortlisted nominees also featured Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, a 1000 page stream-of-consciousness novel consisting of mostly a single sentence; Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, an Igbo Odyssey narrated by a deceased spirit chi; Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte, a metafiction inspired by Don Quixote which chronicles a celebrity-obsessed Indian-American man; and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which tells the story of a Turkish sex worker reflecting on her life as she dies in a rubbish bin in Istanbul after being murdered.
The Booker Prize – formerly known as the Booker-McConnel Prize (1969-2001) and the Man Booker Prize (2002-2019) – is an annual literary prize awarded to the best original English language novel published in the United Kingdom. The award is anticipated both for its prestige and the monetary prize behind it, boasting £50,000 and a promise of success for the rest of the winner’s career.
It has not always been against the rules to split the Booker; in 1974, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton’s The Holiday were both awarded the prize. After the 1992 award, in which Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger were also tied co-winners, a rule was created meaning only one author or book could win.
Peter Florence, chair of this year’s judges, said of the ruling: “We were told quite firmly that the rules state we can only have one winner. Our consensus was that it was our decision to flout the rules and divide this year's prize to celebrate two winners.”
But this has not gone without controversy, with Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, saying the judges “had one job”, and that there was “no good reason to have two (winners)”.
Many felt that Evaristo was the deserving winner. The first black woman writer to win in its fifty-year history, it would have marked a historic moment that some argue was sullied by the joint win. Comparatively, Atwood has won the prize before for her 2000 novel The Blind Assassin, and already has an established career, leading some to suspect that this win could have been attributed to her already existing success.
Amongst a flurry of impassioned op-eds and tweets, Sana Goyal wrote that “The case is less about Atwood being undeserving and more about wholly and fully rewarding, validating, and celebrating the first black (British) woman to win the Booker Prize.”
Evaristo herself said that she was “delighted to have won the prize.”
“Yes, I am sharing it with an amazing writer. But I am not thinking about sharing it, I am thinking about the fact that I am here and that’s an incredible thing considering what the prize has meant to me and my literary life, and the fact that it felt so unattainable for decades.”
At a press conference, when asked if she would have preferred to win the full £50,000, she said: “What do you think? Yes but I’m happy to share it. That’s the kind of person I am.” Atwood similarly stated that it “would have been quite embarrassing” to have accepted the prize alone.
Yet some felt that a split win was the only way. “Picking a winner is an impossible task,” writes Afua Hirsch, one of this year’s judges. “Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo both deserved to win.”
“I’ve heard people complain that we didn’t give it to Atwood alone, or Evaristo alone. I’ve seen plenty of people question how you can ever compare the two. You can’t compare them. But you can recognise them both. And I’m glad that this is what we did.”