Booker Prize 2020: Wrap-Up, Ranking, and Winner Prediction

The winner announcement for the 2020 Booker Prize will be upon us in a matter of hours, and as I’m mostly finished with what I wanted to read in relation to this prize, I want to share some concluding thoughts. I still have Mantel’s longlisted The Mirror and the Light on my schedule for next month, but am planning to include any Booker or Women’s Prize thoughts about it along with my review, so I’ll forge ahead here. There are also two other longlisted books this year that I’ve skipped entirely and don’t currently have any plans to read, so this round-up is slightly incomplete but I’ll do my best.

For more info on this year’s Booker Prize and my thoughts on the books, I’ll link here the official Booker website, my initial longlist reaction and shortlist reaction, and my reviews for each of the individual titles will be included below.

The shortlist, ranked in order of personal favoritism:

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars. A gay Black man in a Midwestern biochemistry grad program wrestles with the choice of leaving an area of study he enjoys in order to escape the pervasive racism that plagues his experience at the school. Over the course of a single weekend, the main character’s interactions with fellow students and friends take a large toll and expose numerous injustices.
  2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars. One woman’s troubling experience with alcoholism in (recent) historical Scotland affects the lives of everyone around her. Hit hardest by her inability to hold onto sobriety and also by the harsh judgment of their surrounding society, her youngest son Shuggie clings to innocent love for his mother while trying to keep her afloat and battle bullies of his own. An exceedingly tragic read.
  3. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars. This historical fiction tale depicts the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just prior to WWII; with sometimes brilliant and sometimes beautiful prose, Mengiste brings the plight of a nation to life, highlighting individual experiences. Though feminist in intent (and indeed featuring particularly strong female characters) the book’s tendency to focus as well on male experiences diluted the woman warrior theme for me.
  4. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars. A suitable end to an impactful trilogy, this volume follows the same Zimbabwean main character as the trilogy’s previous installments, this time as she approaches middle age. This woman is struggling to find meaningful work and a reasonable home for herself in the wake of a postcolonial education which has negatively shaped her life view and sense of self. A heavy and important read (just as the rest of the trilogy), I simply did not appreciate this volume as much as Dangarembga’s first, and felt that the similar themes addressed here had by this point become somewhat repetitive.
  5. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars. A woman and her young daughter leave the City to live in the Wilderness as part of an experiment to determine whether humans can live in raw nature without harming it. An engaging if unsurprising dystopian, this book compensates for a lack of social commentary and fast plot with indulgent landscapes and detailed world-building of its Wilderness.
  6. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars. An Indian artist reflects on her past and sense of morality as she must provide increasing care for her carefree mother, who is losing her memory. The two women share a complicated relationship filled as much with judgment and disappointment as with love, and struggle to help each other even as they are also desperate to save themselves.

As you can see, this wasn’t my year for high shortlist ratings. The only real favorite for me was the title I’d read prior to the longlist announcement. Most of my Booker reading after that point failed to excite me, though I didn’t have any strong dislikes either, which may be a first.

All in all, though I was initially happy with the shortlist, now that I’ve read all of the books I find it a bit…stagnant and stuffy. While I think the themes and concepts on display here are worthwhile and interesting, and all of these writers succeed in laying out stories that are engaging and coherent, there seems to be a lack of innovation here, of playful inventiveness, of inspiring form and wording. Real Life is the exception for me, in that I think it manages to convey quite a lot without saying any of it directly; Taylor tells his story on a slant, where the surface level reads like an eyebrow-raising drama while a lot of powerful implications and emotions ride underneath. The rest, however, struck me as straightforward, long, wandering, and perhaps just a bit too focused on being called Literature to accomplish enjoyability. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on a collection of books that are indeed admirable each in their own way and simply don’t cater to my reading taste. I prefer my literary fiction a bit more raw and biting, which is not what I found here, and while that’s unfortunate for me it does not mean these are necessarily bad books or that anyone who finds more to enjoy in them than I did is wrong to do so- I do hope someone’s having a better time of it than I did.

With that in mind, if I were to pick a winner, I’d say my favorite for that slot all along has been Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a bit disappointing to have read nine other books from the longlist now and still feel that my top choice is the only title I read independently beforehand, but here we are. I think Taylor and his intelligent, emotional writing would make for a deserving Booker win this year, but in all honesty, I don’t think the judges will lean in this direction. Real Life doesn’t quite seem to match the rest of this shortlist for tone, and though its themes are just as heavy and important as any of the others highlighted on this year’s Booker list, there’s a lightness to the delivery that I suspect doesn’t appeal to the judges as strongly as it does to me, if the rest of this list is anything to go by.

Thus, my actual winner prediction is instead Mengiste’s The Shadow King which, while not quite fitting my expectations based on the synopsis and jacket copy, is a commendable piece of fiction that reveals an overlooked piece of history and whose corrections of that historical record feel timely and important. The judging panel this year is wonderfully diverse, and I suspect those judges will lean toward supporting an author, a country, and a story of a sort that has been underrepresented with the Booker in the past, which makes Mengiste’s Ethiopian epic an appealing choice.

Here is a not-quite-accurate shortlist photo, excluding two titles I didn’t have on hand at the time- Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King and instead including the one longlist title whose absence on the shortlist hurts me most- How Much of These Hills is Gold.

For a bit more fun, here is my current longlist ranking, along with brief recaps for the titles that missed the shortlist.

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor – 5 stars.
  2. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang – 4 stars. In the dying days of the American gold rush and westward expansion, two Chinese-American children are orphaned after the death of their prospector father. Instilled with a love of the natural land from him and with Chinese traditions from their mother, the siblings set off to build lives of their own, rooted in their pasts and dreaming of better futures, all while facing rampant racial discrimination. It’s beautifully told with an interesting chronology, and Zhang is expert at playing on readers’ assumptions about character. An astute and heart-wrenching read.
  3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars. An overly dramatic and not entirely believable soap opera of a novel about modern racism and performative allyship. It revolves around a young Black woman accused of kidnapping a white child that she’s babysitting, and the harmful ways that the people closest to her try to “help” with the situation. I wouldn’t call this a literary masterpiece, but I found it great fun to read. I appreciate that it brings timely and important topics to a wide audience in an accessible way.
  4. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars.
  5. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste – 3 stars.
  6. Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward – 3 stars. An incredibly intriguing format and plot centered around an ant that may or may not have crawled into a sleeping woman’s eye. The book, a cross between a short story set and a novel, is a sort of philosophical thought experiment in itself. UnfortunatelyI found it far too emotionless for a story rooted in love that’s meant to be strong enough to save humanity, despite loving the book’s structure and unpredictability.
  7. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars.
  8. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars.
  9. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars.
  10. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler – 3 stars. This was just too incredibly benign for my reading taste. It’s the story of a man going on middle-aged who’s a bit misunderstood, and must change his solitary ways for the sake of important relationships in his life. It’s a brief and competent contemporary story that I’m sure will please readers who enjoy slice-of-life character studies.

Additionally, at this point I have not read these titles from the longlist:

  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This book is still on my TBR; I’ve read the first book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy and have fit books two and three into my December reading schedule, so my reviews will still be forthcoming. I’m determined to read this before the end of the year and expect it would rank in the top half of this year’s Booker list for me, based on my experience with that initial Cromwell novel.
  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. I was not particularly drawn to the synopsis of this book from the start, and it was too challenging for me to get a copy in time for the winner announcement at a price that I was willing to pay for my interest level. I’ve not seen any reviews thus far convincing enough for me to add this book to my TBR, and now that I’ve missed the optimal timing to read it I doubt I will ever get around to picking it up.
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I have no interest in reading this one, and have actually made plans to read a different book with a similar setting as an alternative read (Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa). McCann has been accused of sexual assault and so I do not want to read or support this book or author even though I have heard positive things about the story itself.

Though I can’t give reliable stats for the titles I didn’t read, over half of the longlist titles that I did complete ranked only 3 stars for me. Which is not a bad rating, but it can be a frustrating one, especially when beginning with high expectations (which seems reasonable when approaching a prestigious prize list). 3-star reads are often difficult for me to review, and difficult for me to care about their advancement within the prize ranks or lack thereof. 3-star reads can also (regrettably) be forgettable, which is not a reaction I want to have for top literary reads of the year.

And so, my overall experience has been somewhat subpar. Even the books I rated higher, like Such a Fun Age and Shuggie Bain, I would not have minded leaving behind on the longlist, which is not a great sign. But despite this Booker season turning out to be an off year for me, it was not such a negative experience that I regret following along, nor do I plan to abandon reading along in the future. But I have learned along the way this year that it can be helpful to trust my first impressions, and that neither the world nor my blog will end if I don’t manage to complete the entire list- and so going forward I think I will be making an effort to be choosier about which Booker titles I will pick up instead of pushing myself through titles I’m less intrigued about for the sake of greater completion.

As usual, the best part of this prize season has been following along with other readers, comparing thoughts, making guesses about the upcoming announcements, and finding a sense of (virtual) community in discussing topical titles. I’ve very much enjoyed chatting with everyone who’s commented along my 2020 Booker journey whether having read the books or not- being able to share the experience is the part that makes sticking with sometimes difficult reads worth the effort.

Have you read any of this year’s Booker longlist, or have thoughts about the winner announcement?

The Literary Elephant

24 thoughts on “Booker Prize 2020: Wrap-Up, Ranking, and Winner Prediction”

  1. I read and reviewed the Mengiste back in March and was blown away by it, would give it 5 stars for emotional heft and the lyrical writing. Haven’t read any of the others so I can’t comment! But I do want to read Such a Fun Age.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed The Shadow King so much! I also found it an emotional read and thought the prose was especially beautiful in places. I wished it had focused more closely on the women, which meant a lower rating for me in the end, but I can see that it’s a fantastic novel regardless. And I hope you’ll enjoy Such a Fun Age when you get to it! I thought it was a very enjoyable read. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “a bit too focused on being called Literature to accomplish enjoyability” – That’s a great line, and such a frustrating quality in what could have been an excellent read. It’s a shame you feel somewhat underwhelmed by this year’s selection, but well done for getting through so much of it 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 It was a bit disappointing not to have a stronger connection with more of this year’s books, but it is always fun and rewarding on some level to check out the books for oneself and follow along with the general discussion. And it always helps when the winner is indeed satisfactory! Hopefully next year’s list will be a bit more exciting overall.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, it looks like we were both wrong!! I am sad for Real Life missing the win even though I didn’t really expect that outcome, but I think in the end I’m happier with the official winner than I would’ve been with The Shadow King. So at least there’s that! I do hope next year’s list will be a bit more inspiring overall, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think I’ll ever read Shuggie Bain, but yes I think there were lots of problems with The Shadow King so I’m glad not to see it take the win! (It did strike me that after all the good press about diversity, they gave the prize to the one white man on the list – although to be fair I know he is working-class).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I noticed that as well, but watched a bit of the ceremony and thought Stuart was a charming winner. And he mentioned that he’d spent 12 years writing Shuggie- that kind of commitment always impresses me! I can understand not feeling compelled to pick it up, especially if you aren’t in the mood for alcoholism and relentless tragedy, but I think Stuart delivers it well and has earned the spot. The Shadow King, which struck me as beautiful at times, just did not quite convince me in the same way.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I was surprised to see you rated Such a Fun Age 4 stars. I read your review and thoughts when came out, and I could have sworn you really disliked it. Thus, i was going to ask you what the big difference between Such a Fun Age and Real Life are — both appear to discuss racism against black people in their mid-twenties. But, I see you rated them fairly closely, so I blame my faulty memory!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did have a few criticisms of Such a Fun Age, mainly that it was so overly dramatic that it seemed to me to undermine the seriousness of its topic with the light tone and plot, but nonetheless I thought it had important themes and managed to be a fun read as well, so I did mostly enjoy it. Real Life is much more literary, which is simply more to my taste; both books do deal with very similar messages about microaggressions and racism against young black people in modern America.

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  4. Reading this a few days late and knowing who the winner is now, I wonder, were you surprised at the winner? The only shortlisted title I read is Real Life and while I really liked it too I would have been surprised to see it win. Maybe it felt too American compared with previous Booker winner? (I know it’s relatively recently that American authors have been eligible) or maybe it just didn’t feel Literary (with a capital L!) enough. I like your point about certain books trying so hard to be literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was somewhat surprised to see Stuart win only because he seemed like such the popular choice, and the only white man on the shortlist! With as diverse as the judging panel and nominees have been this year, I did not quite see Stuart’s win coming, especially as his book has been such a favorite among readers- with the backlash against Atwood’s co-win for the commercially-popular-but-not-very-literary Testaments last year I didn’t expect popularity to be much of an indicator. But I’m happy with the win nevertheless! I was able to watch part of the virtual ceremony and I thought Stuart was a charming guy who’d put a lot of work into getting there, and I did quite like his book. I think I’m happier in the end actually than I would have been if my guess had been correct- The Shadow King is an impressive book too, but it felt a bit more like that stuffy capital-L Literature that I wasn’t enjoying so much this year even if I could see its merit. And I do hope people will continue to read shortlisted books even after the winner’s announcement- Taylor’s Real Life was so fun and smart I thought, it really deserves a wide audience even if it didn’t land the win. Maybe you’re right about it feeling too American, I think a few Americans have already won since the Booker was expanded to include them, so perhaps it was too soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s always hard to know how prizes like this are judged and how much do the judges factor in things like diversity or popularity or what country the author comes from. It feels like those things shouldn’t matter and it should simply be based on the book’s merit but of course it’s impossible to judge in a vacuum!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree! The rules for the prize definitely state that each book should be judged on its own merit and nothing else, but one can never truly separate one’s perspective from one’s response to art, I think. And no matter what the judges think about each individual book, the titles they choose to award are always going to send a message about the prize’s intent.

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