This year’s Man Booker shortlist is out and it makes for a very interesting line-up. For the first time ever, four out of the six nominees — two-thirds of the list as it were — are women, an unusual occurrence in case of most awards, literary or otherwise, where under-representation of women is so routine that it does not even raise eyebrows. In fact, since its inception in 1969, only 16 women have won the prestigious £ 50,000 prize. The Nobel Prize for Literature, the giant of all literary prizes, has gone to only 14 women since its constitution in 1901. Little wonder then, that the necessity of acknowledging women for their contribution to literature has spawned unique — if gendered — literary prizes. The Women’s Prize for Fiction, for instance, came into existence in 1996 to even out the playing field.
The jury of this year’s Man Booker Prize, the winner of which will be announced on October 16, seems to have taken forward the idea of equal representation in other heartening ways. While the longlist included a graphic novel for the first time ever — Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina — the shortlist marks yet another first: A novel written in verse. Poet Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, the story of a World War II veteran, is told in a montage of prose, poetry and photographs and was described by one of the judges as a “genre-defying novel”. The shortlist also seems to not have been overwhelmed by reputations. Literary giant Michael Ondaatje and the acclaimed Irish novelist Sally Rooney, both of whom were on the longlist, have made way for younger, less-known novelists such as 27-year-old debutante Daisy Johnson for her Everything Under and Richard Powers for his The Overstory.
While the purpose of any award is to acknowledge and encourage excellence in a chosen field, it also has the onus to push boundaries and make space for imaginative exploration of those liminal spaces where creativity and ingenuity often lurk. The 2018 Man Booker shortlist seems to have struck the right balance in that direction.