Douglas Stuart wins the 2020 Booker Prize

The Scottish-American novelist was the bookies’ favourite and only white male author on the shortlist. But his novel Shuggie Bain tells a tale that has hardly been told before.

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Douglas Stuart has won this year’s Booker Prize for his debut novel Shuggie Bain. His win was announced at a ceremony at the Roundhouse in north London on Thursday evening. Shuggie Bain, which was published by Picador in February, has, since the shortlist was announced in September, sold the most copies of the six nominated books, according to data provided by Nielsen BookScan. It was, according to the bookies, the favourite to win the £50,000 prize.

“This has changed my entire life,” an emotional Stuart said after the announcement.

Stuart is the second Scot to win the Booker, following James Kelman in 1994. In an interview with the prize, Stuart said Kelman’s How Late It Was How Late was “one of the first times I saw my people, my dialect, on the page”.

Stuart was born in Glasgow in 1976. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in London, he moved to New York, where he still lives, and started a career in fashion design. Shuggie Bain was described by chair of judges Margaret Busby as “full of emotional range”. Set in 1980s Glasgow, it is a gritty tale of poverty that follows the relationship between a child and his substance-abusing mother. 

Bernardine Evaristo, joint winner of last year’s Booker with Margaret Atwood, told the New Statesman she found Shuggie Bain “a very engrossing and deep, emotionally stirring novel”. 

Shuggie Bain is destined to be a classic – a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values,” Busby said. “Gracefully and powerfully written, this is a novel that has impact because of its many emotional registers and its compassionately realised characters. The poetry in Douglas Stuart’s descriptions and the precision of his observations stand out: nothing is wasted.”

[See also: “Scottish writers are superior by far”: James Kelman on the Booker, class and literary elitism]

Shuggie Bain was one of six books on a shortlist which made history as the most diverse and international ever. The other shortlisted books include The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld), This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber), Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton), The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate) and Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books). 

Stuart was the only white male author on the shortlist. But his story, which embeds itself in a working-class community and uses Glaswegian dialect, is hardly one that has been told before.

“We need to publish a broad range of literature from all kinds of communities,” Evaristo said. “It’s really important that his story gets told. But it’s also about the quality of the writing and of the storytelling. When you have a story that feels fresh and it’s told brilliantly, that’s a magic combination.”

By awarding Stuart the prize, the judging panel, which alongside Busby comprised Lemn Sissay, Lee Child, Sameer Rahim and Emily Wilson, have sought to honour a novel that is expertly crafted as well as socially and politically important. In a year dominated by the pandemic – which has caused havoc in publication schedules and put many bookshops at risk of closure – it seems fitting that the Booker winner would speak to themes of inequality and the stark class divides that become more exposed in times of crisis.

It is fitting too that the announcement itself was more public and inclusive than ever before. The televised event took place at the Roundhouse and was dubbed a “ceremony without walls”. The winner is usually announced at a seated dinner at London's Guildhall, but this year’s event looked quite different: presenter John Wilson was joined by speakers including Evaristo, Atwood and fellow former Booker winner Kazuo Ishiguro, and guests appeared via video link. The occasion, broadcast on BBC Arts Digital, iPlayer and Radio 4, became a performance for the public at large, not only for the publishing industry insiders who usually populate the room each year.

[See also: Why the pandemic has shaken the book world]

Barack Obama (whose latest book, A Promised Land, was originally scheduled to be published on the same day as the Booker announcement – the ceremony was pushed back by two days to avoid the clash) joined via video link to describe the previous Booker Prize-winning novels he has delighted in reading; and the Duchess of Cornwall spoke of how important reading has been in her life over the tumultuous past year. Actors including Thandie Newton, Anne-Marie Duff, Paapa Essiedu and Stuart Campbell read excerpts of the shortlisted works. 

The accessible nature of the ceremony – it may have been experienced virtually rather than in the flesh, but was open to anyone in the UK with an internet connection – established the whole evening as a landmark public event. Stuart’s deserved win is the pinnacle, but the evening, with its many guests and contributors, more widely celebrated the importance of literature as a powerful force in times of separation. After eight months of few in-person or “live” cultural events at all, it was vitalising to see such excitement shown to the humble act of reading, something which has been keeping many of us sane this year.

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Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.

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