The Booker and Goldsmiths shortlists combined.
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All must have prizes! How the Goldsmiths and Folio awards are changing the literary landscape

Two new prizes are making fresh demands of fiction – and the Booker is taking note, writes Leo Robson.

The Booker Prize, first awarded in 1969 and sponsored by the Man Group since 2002, is under fire and eager to respond. Two new prizes for fiction in English have been established in recent years, with the aim not of stealing the Booker’s throne but of excelling where the Booker has failed. Or where the Booker excelled but the Man Booker has failed. The Folio Prize was launched with a view to setting a “standard of excellence”; the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, seeks to “reward fiction that breaks the mould”. The implication behind these rubrics is that the Man Booker would be unlikely to recognise a great but unfriendly book such as V S Naipaul’s In a Free State (the 1971 winner) or a modernist work such as John Berger’s G (1972).

Since the announcement of the Folio in 2011, in response to the aggressive populism shown by that year’s Man Booker jury, the Booker administrators have engineered a return to seriousness, principally by selecting as the chair of judges not a politician or a broadcaster but the editor of the TLS (Sir Peter Stothard), a Cambridge academic celebrated for his nature writing (Robert Macfarlane) and, this year, the philosopher – and former Booker judge – A C Grayling.

The administrators also extended the prize remit to match the Folio, which includes writers from beyond the Commonwealth – a harmless move – though they didn’t go as far as allowing short stories, which gives the Folio the edge. Its first winner, George Saunders’s Tenth of December, might be seen as eclipsing the work of just about any English-writing novelist.

At the same time, though less consciously, the Man Booker has distanced itself from the Goldsmiths Prize through a change to the submissions policy. In the past, each publisher has been allowed two entries, not including writers who have previously made the shortlist; now publishers are accorded submissions based on their recent Man Booker record – the more longlist titles you’ve had over the past five years, the more submissions you are allowed. (The maximum is four, and the exceptions still apply.) So while things have now improved for Saunders, an American published by Bloomsbury, they would have been even harder for the first winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, Eimear McBride, and the runners-up Philip Terry and Lars Iyer, whose small publishers – Galley Beggar, Reality Street, Melville House – lost one of their submissions under the new system.

Although the Man Booker doesn’t define the kind of novel it wants to recognise, either positively or negatively, its allegiances are clearly different from those of the Goldsmiths. McBride’s novel, picked up by Galley Beggar after multiple rejections, was submitted for last year’s Man Booker but did not make the longlist. The award of the Goldsmiths last November turned it into a book that the Man Booker had missed – and that other prizes couldn’t afford to. It then won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and became a bestseller. One of the virtues already displayed by the Goldsmiths Prize is that rather than hiving off “novel” fiction, it has potentially wide appeal (though Adam Mars-Jones’s long review in the London Review of Books, which ended with a forward glance to a time “when this little book is famous”, also played a part).

There is more overlap between the prizes this time around. The judges, three writers known for their experiments with the novel form (Francis Spufford, Geoff Dyer and Kirsty Gunn) and the NS culture editor, Tom Gatti, on 1 October announced a shortlist with one novel that appeared on the Man Booker longlist, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a portrait of medieval England, and two novels that appear on the Man Booker shortlist – Howard Jacobson’s J, about a ruined future England, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, a pair of stories about grief and art. Of the other titles on the shortlist, Zia Haider Rahman’s recession epic In the Light of What We Know might easily have made the Booker longlist, but Rachel Cusk’s unyielding memoir-novel Outline might have caused the odd problem, and Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist would have caused all sorts of problems, being plotless, narratorless and very short.

It is clear that of the two qualities emphasised by the new prizes, the Man Booker seems keener to be associated with excellence than mould-breaking. But then the troubles of 2011 related to judges liking books that were “readable”, not conventional, so the Man Booker response was not to encourage the unconventional, but to show a renewed dedication to the “literary”, a designation that, before the Folio and Goldsmiths came along, helpfully distinguished the Man Booker from the Costa, which rewards the “most enjoyable” books of the year. A C Grayling, speaking at this year’s press conference, used the term “literary fiction” repeatedly. It’s a tag that, for all its vagueness, one could confidently apply to all six of the shortlisted books, half of which – Jacobson’s J, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – belong to a recognised “literary” genre: dystopian fantasy, family saga, war-torn romance. Of the others, two are accomplished American novels that employ a familiar mode in approaching unusual subject matter – Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, about a dentist on a spiritual quest, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in which a woman recalls her part in a bizarre scientific experiment.

And then there is the strange case of Ali Smith, who would make as plausible a winner of the Man Booker – or the Folio – as of the Goldsmiths and the Costa – or the Baileys. But that’s more a reflection on Smith’s writing than on the validity of these prizes, which are doing an effective job of covering an ever larger, chaotic and fractured landscape.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 14 October, the Goldsmiths Prize on 12 November

Eimear McBride and Ali Smith both appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 30 November

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist