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Booker Prize Winner(s) 2019

I’m going to save my thoughts on the 2019 Booker longlist as a whole until closer to the end of the year, because I know there are at least two more titles I’ll be reading for sure in the coming days/weeks, and some maybes as well. But in light of today’s utterly surprising winner announcement, I wanted to share some initial thoughts!

41081373. sy475 First off, in case you haven’t heard the news, congrats to 2019’s TWO Booker Prize winners: Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood with The Testaments!

I didn’t post a winner prediction, as I’ve only read two and a half of the shortlisted titles so far and didn’t feel I could pass any sort of fair judgment on titles I haven’t read yet. (All reading and judging is of course subjective anyway, which is important to keep in mind especially around the time of book prize announcements) But, from what I’d read, and what I’d heard from other readers, I was HOPING for Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport to win, and EXPECTING that Girl, Woman, Other might actually take the title. So, I’m thrilled that Evaristo did indeed take the win! She’s the first black woman in the history of the Booker Prize ever to win, which is a fantastic development for 2019 and absolutely worth celebrating. Additionally, the content of her book sounds fantastic, but I’ll save descriptions for the end.

Now, let’s talk about Atwood’s joint win.

42975172For anyone who saw my review of The Testaments, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m rather disappointed about this title taking half of the prize winnings. Though Atwood is one of my favorite writers and I don’t in any way begrudge The Testaments its wide popularity, I just don’t think this book is prize winning material. I don’t want to spend this post bashing a winner, so please follow the link at the end of this post to my review for more specific thoughts if you’re curious.

Historically, this is the third time the prize has been divided between two winners, and Atwood is the fourth author to receive the prize twice. I don’t mind an author receiving a literary prize twice. It goes a little ways toward proving that the judges really do consider each book individually rather than taking logistics/statistics too heavily into account. But I don’t like the idea of this prize being divided at all. Joint winners feels like a cop-out. This seems like one of those “you had one job!” situations where the judges just… didn’t do their job. And of course, my frustration at the situation isn’t helping my opinion of the book I didn’t want to win in the first place. If any author deserved to win twice, I would be the first to say it’s Atwood. And yet, The Testaments is my least favorite Atwood novel (so far), and frankly, it’s just not as good from a literary standpoint as The Handmaid’s Tale. No, literariness isn’t everything, but for a LITERARY PRIZE, I do expect that to carry some weight. For The Testaments to win where The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t does not sit well with me, and it leaves me wondering whether this prize in 2019 is in some way meant to reflect the judges’ appreciation for BOTH of the books in this duology- an “I’m sorry the better book didn’t win, let us make it up to you by giving this less accomplished sequel an accolade instead.” Just a theory.

If I sound harsh, it’s mainly due to my frustration at the lack of a definitive winner, and furthermore that the first black woman to win the Booker has to share the prize. These are my biggest hangups. The fact that I didn’t think The Testaments merited a win at all is a lesser concern- I know that opinions vary, mine isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s, and again, reading is subjective, so.

45735014Moving on to the greatest slight, let’s talk aout Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Though there are plenty of readers who simply aren’t on board with this 1,020 page stream-of-consciousness story that’s told mainly in one looong sentence, the crowd that gets it really gets it, and this is the title I saw the most votes for among my own social media feeds. Personal opinions on the content aside (I’m currently reading this one and don’t have any final thoughts to share yet), it’s undeniably impressive in structure and style, and certainly the most unique book on the list. (Yes, I feel confident in making that assertion after reading only half the book and not having read three of the other shortlisted titles.) I thought this one had a great shot at winning, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this one again when the 2020 Women’s Prize nominees are announced. I’ll have a full review coming soon, but I want to voice another theory in the meantime:

I wonder if Ducks simply seemed a bit too similar to 2018’s Booker winner, Milkman, to succeed here this year. Both are structurally inventive and challenging reads, in stream-of-consciousness style, with political commentary, from a female perspective, written by a white woman. They’re totally different, of course, but similarities can certainly be drawn. I actually think Ducks is going to fare best with the Milkman-loving crowd. I suspect this might have played a role in its missing a 2019 win.

Additionally, I think the joint win seems especially harsh for all four of the shortlisted writers who didn’t win this year. To have your shot at winning increase from 1/6 to 1/3, and STILL not be chosen, would be tough. To know that the judges had such a hard time making a choice that they DIDN’T in the end make the choice, and yet were confident enough to exclude those other four writers, must have been unimaginably difficult. Of course, Everyone on the shortlist (and even the longlist) is likely just happy to have been nominated at all and knows not to expect a win, but to be passed up in such a wishy-washy situation just sounds unusually painful.

And so, I highly recommend picking up more than just the winning books, if you have the chance! I’ll share full recommendations from the longlist in another month or two, but for now, a quick recap of my progress and general overview:

I’VE READ:

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 35003282This is an Odyssey retelling about a Nigerian man, a poultry farmer, who just wants his lover’s family to accept him. While trying to prove himself, he is taken advantage of in tragic ways. Moral and social themes are explored.
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The sequel to Atwood’s wildly popular Handmaid’s Tale, this one’s a dystopian thriller set in Gilead. Three new perspectives each have their own feminist insight to impart, and the book offers a hopeful and powerful response to unjust government.

CURRENTLY READING:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Here we have a deep dive into the perspective of an Ohio housewife: the everywoman in Trump’s America. As the unnamed narrator bakes pies and takes care of four children, she’s also extremely preoccupied by the current state of the world.

WILL READ:

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is a novel comprised of twelve connected short stories that examine the lives of black women in Brexit Britain.

MIGHT READ:

  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. 44599127This is a Don Quixote retelling with fantasy elements set in modern America. This is a love story and a wild romp of political commentary.
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. Here we take a trip through a dying woman’s brain in the moments immediately following her death, followed by the trials of the friends who fight to give her a decent burial afterward.

46777584I’ve linked the two titles I’ve read to my reviews, and the rest to Goodreads. I’ll post a personal ranking of the longlisted titles and more conclusive thoughts on the shortlist once I’ve finished reading the titles I’m interested in checking out. I’ll continue to post reviews as I read, as well. And if any of these titles catch your interest, please give them a further look! Though the Booker Prize aims to single out the best novel(s) published each year, don’t forget that there are plenty of other great new books that are also worth reading as well! Though I’m very much looking forward to Girl, Woman, Other myself, literary prizes are above all a call to celebrate READING, and that’s one cause I’m sure we can all unite over!

But if you have specific thoughts about this year’s Booker Prize, whether you agree or disagree with my stance, I’d love to chat in the comments. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Reading Widely vs. Deeply

I came across a post a month or so ago that I’ve been thinking a lot about. Actually, it wasn’t even the main points of the post that kept me thinking– something about literary tropes/cliches, I believe– but a side remark about genre. I don’t remember the blogger or the post, to be honest, and I didn’t even think much of the remark at the time, but it’s been eating at me for weeks now. This blogger said, “Every reader has a preferred genre.” I think the argument was that readers are more likely to tolerate tropes in their preferred genre. But what stuck with me was that assertion of preference.

And maybe this person went on to make a few concessions, that it’s possible to prefer two genres, or that you don’t know what your genre is until you start categorizing the books you’ve been reading lately and a pattern emerges, but generally the commenters seemed to agree that they had one preferred genre. Or maybe two. Looking through other peoples’ posts on booktube, on blogs, on bookstagram, etc. it’s easier to see when readers lean toward a certain type of book than it is to see for myself. But I’ve really been trying and I can’t figure out my type. I’ve been asking around to see what my family and friends think of the things I read, and the common opinion seems to be that I have eclectic taste, that I like “weird things.” By which I assume they mean “different things than I read.”

I don’t know why it bothers me so much that I don’t have a favorite genre, but I think that’s the truth, after days and days of deliberation. I like to read everything. Everything that’s written well, anyway. If a book is well-written, it does not matter to me what its subject is. Sure, I have moods and phases, but generally I switch easily from one genre to the next, and that’s my favorite way to read. I don’t want to read 2 fantasies in a row, or 2 contemporaries, or 2 classics, or 2 YA novels, or 2 thrillers, or 2 memoirs. But I want to read all of those things, and more. So far this month I’ve read a lit fic, a contemporary, an urban fantasy, and a sci-fi novel. I’m currently reading a YA novel, and next up on deck I have a mystery, a historical fiction, and a nonfiction book. And they all feel like “my type” of book.

I think part of the reason I’m uncomfortable with having no reading specialty, shall we say, is that I always feel like I’m behind. I just can’t read a substantial number of books in every genre out there in a reasonable period of time. I’m not a speed reader, nor is reading the only thing I have to do in my life. My TBR just keeps getting larger and more out of control because I want to read all of the books that exclusively YA readers are interested in, and all of the thrillers that the adrenaline junkies have their eye on, and all the nonfiction that worldly readers enjoy. But I can’t keep up with it all. Of course, even readers with one preferred genre might be in over their heads with all the publications new and old within a single category, but in reading widely, I have to be so much more selective in what I spend my time on because I have less time to spend on each genre with the more genres I dabble in.

I want to be a reading expert, but I feel like I can’t be an expert in all areas. There’s no way to tackle all of the new releases, let alone the great books that are already out there. So here’s the big question: is it better to have a taste of everything, or to really know a certain flavor or two?

Do you read widely (across a wide range of genres/subjects) or deeply (really delving into a select genre or two that you come back to over and over for all the nuances)? Is one option better than the other?

I don’t know.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you have a genre preference, or why you gravitate toward the books that you do.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

“One learns most clearly what not to do [when writing] by reading bad prose.” -Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

The thing about Goodreads ratings is that they’re not accurate. They are not the opinions of random, objective readers. Almost every single person who contributes a review or star rating for any given book has picked up that book for a reason and went into it with expectations that will affect their concluding opinions of it. Have you noticed that ratings for books in a series tend to be rated higher as the series goes on, even though the overall ratings are fewer? That’s probably at least partially due to the fact that the readers who make it that far in the series are readers who’ve already found something they liked in the first book and know they’ll find what they’re looking for in subsequent novels. There are exceptions, and of course it is possible that the books in any given series do actually improve, but I think it’s also worth noting that the people who read (and rate) book 2 are usually people who liked book 1. And by book 3, even more readers who were on the fence have been weeded out, thus driving ratings up even more.

That’s just an easy example. We also have people who rate books they’ve DNF’d (unfair, in my opinion), people who rate books before they’ve read them, people who know the author, or have been given a free early copy, or had to read a book for a class and wound up letting their feelings about the class show in their review of the book. No matter how it happens, anyone who checks for reviews on Goodreads before picking up a book should be aware that almost every single person who’s left their opinion in the reviews section has been biased in some way. They believed the Booktube hype, or have read something else by the same author, or found the title on a list of reputed “good books”, or are in love with a particular genre. Most of those readers aren’t people who saw the title in a bookshop, picked up the book without knowing anything at all about it, and reviewed it completely impartially. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s not the norm.

Don’t be fooled: I love Goodreads. I check the ratings there before I pick up a book, often. But it’s important to note that sometimes books are rated highly not because they’re good, but because they contain whatever their readers were looking for when they picked them up. Case in point: Elle Kennedy’s Off-Campus series.

I’ve been highly stressed lately, and in times of stress I reach for guilty pleasures. I often go for something I’ve already read and know will be a guilty pleasure, but this time I picked up something new. In the Off-Campus series, Elle Kennedy has written four NA romance books. They’re pretty short and easily readable–I read all four in four days. I’m talking about these here because they’re rated highly on Goodreads; every single book in this series is rated above 4 stars, and they’re not good.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. I’ve read worse. I gave each of the books in this series (The Deal, The Mistake, The Score, and The Goal) 3 stars for my enjoyment level, which is certainly not my lowest rating. They’re cheesy, predictable, somewhat sexist books with transparent plot mechanics. But even though the plot is obvious and feels fictionalized, it is a functioning plot. It makes sense, at the very least. The mechanics are in working condition, even if they are more visible than they should be. Even though it’s clear from the first two chapters who’s going to end up with whom and which major obstacle they’ll have to overcome, there’s emotion in there. There are abundant sex scenes, if that’s your thing. And that’s why I think these books have been rated so highly. The people reading these ab-covered books are the people looking for predictable bodice-rippers starring college hockey players who believe they’re God’s gift to women. The abs on the covers attract a certain audience. There are some topics these books handle well– every main character has something difficult in their present or past: a rape, an abusive parent, a sick parent, a dead friend, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. These details are dealt with carefully and respectfully. It’s the “puck bunnies” I have a problem with. The use ’em and lose ’em mentality of the men in this book. And that’s why I’m not posting full reviews for each of the books in this series. They’re all very much the same and I had the same complaints about them all. Admittedly, I liked them enough to read all four, but I think it’s like Stephen King says: we learn what not to do in our writing by reading bad books, and that’s as important a lesson as reading examples of what we should do.

Sometimes you just have to read a bad book or two. Or four. There’s nothing wrong with reading whatever the heck you want, literary merit be damned. I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the Goodreads rating system, because I was shocked that the third book in this series is rated higher than some books well-known for their goodness. The Score, an NA romance novel about a horny hockey player who falls in love with a girl who’s ashamed she had a one-night stand with him, is rated higher on Goodreads than Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s important to keep in mind when using Goodreads that it’s not a tool for rating literary goodness. It rates enjoyment. Sadly, those are two very different categories. And further, enjoyment levels are affected by the fact that readers always, always have expectations of the books they’re reading.

The reading world would be a different place without Goodreads. A lonelier place. But, like any other tool, we must use it wisely.

How do you feel about the Goodreads rating system? Also, does anyone have any better NA reading recommendation for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant