As It Happens

Inside the Booker Prize jury room, where the indecision was unanimous

In what's being called "an explicit flouting of the rules," Booker Prize jury members decide to give the literary award to two authors: Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo.

Awarding both Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo solved 'a wonderful conundrum,' says Peter Florence

Joint 2019 Booker Prize winners Margaret Atwood, left, and Bernardine Evaristo, right. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
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In the Booker Prize's 50 year history, it has only happened twice before. 

On Monday, the literary award for fiction was awarded to two authors: Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other

But this time was different.

Authors Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton split the prize in 1974. Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth shared the honour in 1992. But the rules changed in 1993 to guarantee only one winner would take home the prize.

The literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation has called the jury's decision an "explicit flouting of the rules."

But Peter Florence sees it differently. Florence is the chair of the jury and he spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the unruly decision. Here is part of their conversation.

The Telegraph has called this "the most dramatic act of Booker insurrection" since 1976, when Philip Larkin threatened to jump out of the window if his favourite book didn't win, which it did. Did it feel like an act of rebellion when the jury decided this?

Do you think they're a bit hung up on the melodrama here? 

I mean, we're not throwing the tea into the harbour. We're not mounting a barricade. We're trying to find a happy solution that everybody can love to a wonderful conundrum — what happens when you get two books you love so much that you want both of them to win a really major book prize?

We struggled with this for hours and we took advice and we were told we could not share the prize. We discussed it more and tried to find other ways of making a decision that wouldn't betray what we felt in our conversations about the books and we couldn't.

We went back and they sent us back again. And for the third time of asking, the wonderful people at Booker, very graciously, agreed to accept our decision and to let us break their prize rules.

Peter Florence says after hours of deliberation the jury decided naming two winners was a 'happy solution' to a 'wonderful conundrum.' (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

OK. Just so people understand, you had a short list of six books. And then, what happens is that the day of the announcement the jury is sequestered and you have to come out of it with one book. That's the rule, right? 

That's the rule. You go in at 10 in the morning and by lunchtime you're supposed to have a decision. Well, we went in at 10 o'clock in the morning and we were still talking at four o'clock in the afternoon.

There's a big award ceremony. There's a lot of stuff that has to be done. How much pressure were you under by four o'clock to produce a winner?

Well, there's pressure and there's pressure. You know, nobody was shooting at us or tried to take our visas away.

They were saying, "Please meet our deadline. We've got to prepare a press release. Give us an answer!" And we were saying, "Our answer is that we love both these books."

And extraordinarily, actually, the books sit well together. They're both political. They're both fully engaged. They're both beautifully, beautifully written. They're both complex and yet they're both page-turning, joyful reads.

Also, really importantly, they're doing big things. They're looking at gender issues, race issues. They're looking at what we do in a very troubled world that is about celebration, survival, complicity, resistance, resilience.

It's about, I think, an opportunity to say both these books matter hugely and we want to celebrate them both.

Why is it so important to the Booker Prize Foundation that you choose only one?

You know, I don't know. I have no idea. I can understand that it might be easier to have one clear winner. But life is more complicated than that. Certainly the richness of this year's submission was more complicated than that.

I don't much like binary decisions. I'm British. Why would I? I'm intrigued by the process of celebration here, actually. There's a lot of emphasis on exclusion and I'm more of an inclusion enthusiast. And the opportunity to say, "two, not one," I think, was irresistible.

The director of the foundation, Gaby Wood [told the Telegraph] the jurors effectively staged a sit-in in the judging room. And she says, "It's not that we accommodated the jury, it's that the jury actively chose to reject the rules."

Well, I mean ... you know, the Times called it today "Extinction Rebellion." It didn't feel like a rebellion. It felt like a solution to an unusual and rather wonderful problem.

Literary Director of the Booker Prize, Gaby Wood, far left, and Chair of the Judges, Peter Florence, far right, pose for a photo with Atwood and Evaristo. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Margaret Atwood was saying of her win, she said: "It would have been quite embarrassing for a person of my age at this stage to have won the whole thing and thereby hinder a person in an earlier stage of their career from going through that door. I really would have been embarrassed, trust me on that." In the first month of this book, The Testaments, I think it sold about 180,000 copies. This book by Bernardine Evaristo has sold just shy of 4,000 before you chose it. Do you think that Bernardine Evaristo, despite sharing it, will be able to get as much limelight as the Booker Prize normally gives to a book?

I hope so. I hope part of the sharing will be that Margaret Atwood's readers will say a jury said this book should share the prize with The Testaments and that must mean it's a good book and we'd like to read it.

It's very hard to measure anyone, alive or dead, against Margaret Atwood. There is an honourable tradition of people withdrawing themselves from eligibility for major prizes. I'm really glad that in this case neither Atwood nor Rushdie chose to do that because, actually, if you're trying to gather the greatest contemporary fiction, those two people will always be part of that conversation.

So I'm glad that it worked out that way. I'm delighted that Evaristo has won. I'm delighted that Atwood has won. Is there equality in all things? No. But there is an opportunity to say — you might, if you liked that, please consider this of equal quality.

I think that's an actually rather strong message about what Bernadine Evaristo's achievement is.


Written by Katie Geleff and John McGill. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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