Inside Story

Anna Burns, a Booker with soul

The Belfast novelist’s prize underlines the BBC’s cultural drift

David Hayes 17 October 2018 2540 words

Welcome if unexpected: Anna Burns (right) is presented with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction at the Guildhall in London by the Duchess of Cornwall. Frank Augstein/PA Wire

“What’s your writing routine, William?” “What sort of quill do you use?” “Have you ever actually seen a ghost?” “In your view, William, which is better — to be or not to be?” “What’s your opinion about the current situation in Denmark?” “Have you ever actually taken arms against a sea of troubles, and, if so, what was it like?”

This year’s winner of the Man Booker prize, Anna Burns, will soon need ready answers to the kind of query posed in Craig Brown’s imaginary Q&A with Shakespeare following the first night of Hamlet. The Irish novelist’s life changed at 10pm on Tuesday when the ceremony in London’s lavish Guildhall concluded with the announcement that Milkman, her fourth work, was the judges’ choice over the favourites, Richard Powers’s The Overstory and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black.

Within minutes of her stunned reaction and tremulous thanks to publishers and editors, the Belfast-born writer was pitched into a round of speed dates with deadline-pressed journalists. The first mention of Brexit can’t be far off. [Stop press, 03.00 GMT: Burns’s interview reference to her book as also being about “barriers, barricades, and the dreaded ‘other’” is seen as underscoring its relevance to Brexit.]

The award to Burns’s cryptic first-person illumination of a Catholic girl in a claustrophobic urban district during Northern Ireland’s 1970s heaviness is welcome if unexpected. The shortlist looked thinner when two kinetic works, Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, failed to make the cut. Powers’s tree-centric embrace of deep time, Edugyan’s epic of a freed slave, Daisy Johnson’s rural English mythos, Rachel Kushner’s tale of a mother’s survival in a California prison, and Robin Robertson’s transatlantic verse-journey all had their champions, while Private Eye’s description of an “earnest and overly issue-driven shortlist” might be truer of several recent years. In the end Milkman, with its nameless characters, immersive fears, experimental diction, stream-of-consciousness portraits, and powerful sense of a collective subject, draws the reader into its genuinely imagined world.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the NYU philosopher who chaired the judging panel, had earlier offered a few portentous words about the “dizzying array of human imagination” on offer from the six finalists, which “speak to our moment,” while admitting that — in the Booker tradition of last-minute tussles — even he “didn’t know this morning” who would take the prize.

Everyone, in short, did their level best by what is still regarded as Britain’s most prestigious literary title, its £50,000 (A$92,000) value to the recipient not incidental. (“Pay off my debts,” was Burns’s sensible answer when BBC’s Rebecca Jones asked about her plans.) A big rise came in 2002 when the Man Group, an investment management firm, took over the sponsorship, wisely choosing to keep the older name, with its happy assonance, as part of a new branding.

The baton now is returned to the publishers, booksellers, publicists, agents, feature writers and re-reviewers, whose next busy weeks aim to put author and work into the heads and hands of as many readers as possible. At the max, the “Booker bounce” can deliver great benefits, shared by the other novels who have made the long- and shortlists.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, for example, catapulted from 13,000 to over 191,000 sales in 2016 (even excluding audio and ebooks), while George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, last year’s winner, jumped from 10,000 to 62,000: the smallest boost on record, yet still one to die for. The success of these sons of Los Angeles and Amarillo was made possible by the sponsor-led opening-up in 2014 to any novel published in English in the United Kingdom, regardless of the author’s home country, a departure from the Booker’s historical “confinement” to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. The closing words of Appiah’s announcement, “we read all these authors without ever asking for their passports,” might be seen as a coded endorsement of that decision — or rebuke to the British government over its now colder house for immigrants?

In this respect, it will be interesting to track the latest iteration of what publishers yearningly call the Man Booker’s halo effect. Anna Burns’s award will surely also deflect persistent criticism of that international (read: American) outreach, made on the grounds that the prize’s distinct character will be eroded, as well as an overlapping unease over a sequence of four awards to male writers since Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries won in 2013.

The Booker race, famously landed with the term “posh bingo” by Julian Barnes, whose The Sense of an Ending won in 2011, ostensibly seeks to make readers of punters and gawpers. Yet the compulsive social thrills of such events — the odds and inside dope, the personas and backstories — seem ever to turn the literary pleasures into also-rans.

To see how BBC television and, marginally less so, radio treat the annual Man Booker is to encounter a willing collaborator possessed of bags of complaisant smiliness but no intellectual or moral rigour. That at least is the gravamen of its two pre-Booker programs, the first of which was a thirty-minute, Friday night edition of its Front Row Late arts series. In a live event at Birmingham’s literary festival, inevitably fronted by Mary Beard, a three-person panel discussed publicity, reviews and the boom in literary prizes and festivals.

In a recorded segment, industry figures agreeably shared trade customs: dispensing proofs to “influencers,” maximising the “personal element” of meet-the-author and signed copies. Fortuitously transformative notices were also given their due. Pru Rowlandson, publicity director at Granta, recalled Margaret Atwood’s review of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, and James Daunt, managing director of the flagship Waterstone’s chain, cited Ian McEwan’s live BBC Radio encomium to John Williams’s Stoner, which propelled the neglected work to 130,000 sales.

There was little revelatory in any of this, though Beard — having read “1.5” of the Booker shortlist — expressed worry about the “packaging” and “language” just voiced. Kate Mosse, founding director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, explained her rationale (“prizes matter because they give a reason for works of quality to stay on the shelf”), while the journalist and Birmingham curator Sathnam Sanghera championed more local, diverse and soulful events against expensive ones “in fields and tents, for posh white people.”

Dreda Say Mitchell, a crime writer and digital evangelist, was already way beyond. She lamented both the hard copies on show (“In a world where books have gone digital, I would expect to see Kobo or Kindle”) and the “very narrow voices of corporate traditional publishing,” instead praising online commenters, crime readers’ clubs and “the power of digital to give writers a living.” She then took aim at Sanghera’s dismissal of many Amazon reviews as “rubbish,” citing a single star for Hamlet: “Why shouldn’t they give Shakespeare one star? At the end of the day I’m a writer. I want people to buy my books. The most powerful persons to me are the people who read my books. How do you define an expert? What is an expert?”

Mary signed off with the obligatory BBC plug: following the last “hugely successful adaptation” of John le Carré, here’s a “taster” of the next, “which starts on BBC1 later this month.” Then the credits, which listed twenty-two names complicit in this mess of pottage. Though to be fair, it was enlivened by Dreda’s sorted and fearless presence. And even if the Man Booker link had proved vestigial, the professionals’ insight into the machinery driving today’s “prose factory” (the title of D.J. Taylor’s rich history of England’s post-1918 literary life) was of real interest.

An absorbing current illustration, given the author’s established status, is the pre-marketing for Jonathan Coe’s forthcoming novel Middle England, published in early November but circulated well before then among key influencers. The bucolic heritage-style cover announces its inevitable choice as a BBC Radio 4 “book of the week,” while blurbs have long circulated framing the work as the landmark post-Brexit novel (notwithstanding the genre’s busy post-2016 output). Most remarkable of all in the months up to publication is Coe’s enticing drip-feed to his followers of lines from the novel.

These literary slivers slot into place alongside Coe’s one-track political commentary in what might be termed Tribal Coeland. “England felt like a calm and settled place tonight: a country at ease with itself.” “‘It’s a shop, Dad. It’s a Marks and Spencer. They don’t make cars here any more.’ ‘Where do they make the cars, then?’ That was a good question.” “‘Luckily, there are still a lot of loyal, sensible Conservatives who appreciate the benefits of EU membership. I believe you’re sleeping with one of them.’” And so on.

The book’s high-end endorsers include Ben Elton (“An astute, enlightened and enlightening journey into the heart of our current national identity crisis. Both moving and funny”); Nigella Lawson (“magisterial”); Sanghera, Coe’s fellow Brummie (“fantastic… the first great Brexit novel”); and India Knight (“This book is sublimely good. State of the (Brexit) nation novel to end them all, but also funny, tender, generous, so human and intelligent about age and love as well as politics”). The Guardian’s John Crace even turns market pitcher to roll up the crowds: “Let me add to the chorus of praise for Jonathan Coe’s new book Middle England.”

Middle England’s buzz-building — a coalescing of author, publisher, festivals, friends, fans, and the politically like-minded — is a case study in literary manufacture, a topic raised, but no more, in Front Row Late. If such processes were brought fully into the light, and considered in an inquiring, eclectic spirit, not just the world of books but the common good might be well served. The chance of that being tried on the BBC is less than zero.

The second program, broadcast on BBC Four on the eve of the Man Booker ceremony, was a one-hour survey of the prize’s half-century, inevitably guided by the BBC panjandrum Kirsty Wark, with a title — Barneys, Books and Bust-Ups — sampling from the corporation’s millennial trademark: patronising populism.

Again, to be fair, the endless milling shots of big-night luminaries — filling for the lack of relevant visuals — were a bracing rapid-fire test, and insiders were again good value: the late publisher Tom Maschler, who took the idea from France’s Prix Goncourt (“I set it up because England is backward in terms of literary appreciation”); double recipient Peter Carey, on how the prize “brought new voices from beyond the metropole” before becoming a “literary juggernaut”; and the scholar Hermione Lee contextualising a clip of Penelope Fitzgerald, winner in 1979 with Offshore, being cut down on the BBC’s The Book Programme by disdainful host Robert Robinson and fellow guest Susan Hill soon after her sweet moment.

If the latter was excruciating, and a hapless TV presenter’s buttonholing of judges Angela Carter and Fay Weldon in 1983 equally so, Anthony Burgess’s reaction when beaten by William Golding in 1980 (“a small, parochial prize suitable for small, parochial novels”) was cowardly, and his feint to the Nobel, which Golding would also shortly receive, indicative of a cosmic humour at work.

Familiar rivalries and incidents were retold: Brian Aldiss and Malcolm Bradbury’s attempt to stop Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981 (it was also chosen as the “best of…” after the Booker’s twenty-fifth and fortieth years); John Berger handing his prize money (“as a revolutionary writer”) to the Black Panthers in 1972 on account of parent company Booker-McConnell’s historic links to Caribbean sugar plantations; Alan Taylor’s counter-coup in 1994, which installed James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late over Alan Hollinghurst or Jill Paton Walsh. Kirsty’s anecdotal heap vaguely prompted the old joke that to find England’s real bloodsport, the place to look is the letters page of the Times Literary Supplement. But there was plenty of mulch too — Beryl Bainbridge’s backache, Val McDermid ploughing through the longlist while cooking, P.H. Newby’s sister watching people bet on the outcome in 1969 when she secretly knew he had won, Anne Enright being denied a visit to the loo — before it perked up with Fay Weldon’s agent being punched.

There were omissions, such as Nicholas Mosley resigning as a judge in 1991 because he wanted a novel of “ideas” not of “style” to win. That decision was made to look sound after Ben Okri’s overblown The Famished Road was selected, a rival to Keri Hulme’s The Bone People in 1985 as the prize’s nadir. More immediately, there was a hint of recent controversies over the Booker’s expansion, but no mention of the various extractive spin-offs (such as the convoluted process that in 2018 ended by delivering a Golden Man Booker to Michael Ondaatje for his 1992 winner, The English Patient). The sponsors’ interests and priorities were tangibly out of bounds.

In editorial terms both these programs, as so often on the BBC, had no governing theme: no solidity or coherence, above all no guiding intelligence. In the end — and this can be intuited of a clear majority of BBC TV’s so-called factual output — all they aspire to do is, fundamentally, fill space. Typical here is the aural blancmange of Kirsty Wark’s script: the Booker’s “annual awards ceremony unfolds early in October in an opulent London venue,” it is “always a magnet for scandal, with backbiting and bitchiness ever present,” though “as well as amusing literary spats, [the prize] also uncovered some major new writers,” “from humble beginnings the annual award ceremony has cemented itself as the go-to literary event of the year.” And so, witlessly, on.

This week’s Bagehot column in the Economist draws a lesson from the veteran broadcaster Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time — an intelligent, long-running Radio 4 discussion program about pretty much everything under the sun. The lesson, hard as it would be to take forward, goes well beyond the BBC, but fits the limited ground examined here:

[In Our Time’s] success is testimony to the power of curiosity. Rather than being sick of experts, people are desperate to hear their reports from the frontiers of knowledge… There is nothing inegalitarian about catering to this curiosity, just as there is nothing egalitarian about doling out dumbed-down drivel… BBC producers churn out formulaic products aimed at the imaginary median viewer… Institutions like the BBC need to rediscover their cultural self-confidence.

Such words, clearly, are the beginning of an argument not its conclusion. In its large context, two forgettable BBC programs around the Man Booker prize scarcely matter. Yet the world exists in grains of sand, and (pace Walter Bagehot on the House of Lords) the cure for admiring the BBC is to look at it closely — then also look through it, to society and this moment’s needs. For the time being, Anna Burns’s narrator in Milkman nails those: “The truth was dawning on me of how terrifying it was not to be numb, but to be aware, to have facts, retain facts, to be present, be adult.” •