One of the most cerebral aspects of literature is its potential to turn into a cause for celebration while also pulling us into the core of one of the most interconnected times in human history. But literary prizes can often get murky and it is practically impossible to impress the reader. There is always room for more diversity, batting for the underdog, and going into unmarked territory.
If the past few years are anything to go by, the Booker Prize juries have increasingly shown a proclivity towards the unconventional and the experimental – often favouring debut novelists with a fresh voice over jaded stories with a dated approach. Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina was the first graphic novel to be longlisted recently, in 2018, while Mike McCormack’s single-sentence novel, Solar Bones made it to the 2017 longlist. And most of us are probably still finishing the brick that was Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, shortlisted in 2019 to a mixed response.
The 2021 longlist, though, promises to buck many trends. From Nobel prize winners, Pulitzer awardees, to debut novelists eviscerating social media – it’s a staggering range. As Author Rajat Ubhaykar, of Truck De India fame, puts it: “I’m impressed by the geographical sweep of the stories on the longlist, from Punjab to South Africa to Sri Lanka to the US, as well as the thematic diversity on offer: Artificial intelligence, historical fiction, the disorienting landscape of social media, there’s something for every reader. And that’s the exciting bit.”
According to Nilanjana S. Roy, novelist and Financial Times columnist, the longlist is clearly “reader-friendly” with its choices. “It offers something for almost every kind of reader, from Maggie Shipstead’s soaring historical fiction (Great Circle) featuring a woman aviator to Booker veteran Kazuo Ishiguro’s melancholy and moving exploration of what it would mean to be an AI at the service of humanity, in Klara and the Sun. Some critics will miss books like Natasha Brown’s Assembly or Leone Ross’ Popisho, but it’s a rare year that yields a longlist as strong, questioning, and as much fun as this one,” she says.
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