You are here

The Gang of Five

The Gang of Five

So the Man Booker Prize 2018 now has its team. Following the announcement of Kwame Anthony Appiah as chair of the 50th anniversary judges his fellow scrutineers have just been revealed: the crime novelist Val McDermid; the cultural critic Leo Robson; the academic Jacqueline Rose; and the artist and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton. It seems invidious with such a distinguished bunch but it is worth picking out one notable attribute for each judge. Val McDermid was Celebrity Mastermind champion in 2013; Leo Robson's range encompasses writing about Prime Minister's Questions for the New Yorker; Jacqueline Rose once had an Yves Saint Laurent scarf and convinced friends the initials stood for Young Socialist League; and Leanne Shapton was a good enough swimmer to make it to the 1992 Canadian Olympic trials. So as in novels so in the judging panel – all of human life is here.

Jacqueline Rose is perhaps best known by the academic world for her work as a feminist critic; she was also one of several Man Booker figures asked by the The Guardian to nominate “The book that made me a feminist.” Rose chose Sigmund Freud’s 1905 Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, best known as “the Case of Dora” because it showed that “The desires of women are multifaceted and will not be adapted to the requisite social norms.” Margaret Atwood (Man Booker winner 2000) chose Grimm's Fairy Tales because, for the numerous female protagonists, “The odds are stacked against them, but they win through.” Sarah Churchwell (Man Booker judge 2014) plumped for Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark for its depiction of a young girl following her calling as a singer; while Kamila Shamsie (Man Booker longlistee 2017) went for the work of Ismat Chughtai in which “she highlights how unedifying it is to construct a category of 'oppressed women' in a world in which all women – including Ismat – have to contend with patriarchy”. 

Anne Enright, Man Booker winner in 2007, is also much exercised by feminism. Reflecting on her role as the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction she realised that, despite herself, gender politics came with the job: “Listening to arguments about gender makes men mildly defensive and takes very little of their time,” she concluded. “If you are a woman, making these arguments will eat your head, your talent and your life. None of this ever seemed to me fair, or even useful.”

Sticking with the Man Booker’s distaff side, Hilary Mantel (winner in 2009 and 2012) has been poking the wasps' nest again. In a brief Q&A discussing her life as a reader rather than writer she admitted that Yeats made her cry (presumably for being affecting rather than risible) but went on to diss both Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Of Scott she noted that “I started Peveril of the Peak when I was 12. Death will arrive before I finish it. Maybe no one has ever finished it. Except Sir Walter Scott, unfortunately.” While she went further with Dickens: “there are whole swathes of Charles Dickens that I barely attempt. It just seems such awful stuff – coarse, sentimental, conceited”.

Another one of our wonderful Man Booker women, Han Kang, Man Booker International Prize winner in 2016, has credited becoming a writer to an unusual source: migraines. She has been afflicted with them since she was a teenager and their onset means “I have to stop my work, my reading, my routine, so it’s always making me humble, helping me realise I’m mortal and vulnerable . . . Maybe if I was 100% healthy and energetic I couldn’t have become a writer.” Writers often describe what they do as being painful but few have meant it so literally.