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The Guardian view on book prizes: the more the merrier


The Booker prize may have lost some of its prestige, but that allows other awards – and different books – to shine

Once upon a time there was only one truly heavy-hitting literary prize in Britain – the Booker. Founded in 1969, it most forcefully made the cultural weather in the 1980s and 1990s, when a succession of celebrated authors, such as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and AS Byatt, reached vast new audiences through the award. Times have changed. Questionable decisions have seen the Booker lose some of its prestige. The organisers’ decision to make American books eligible, while logical in many ways, has robbed the prize of its old, albeit somewhat eccentric, distinctiveness. But its slipping down the cultural pecking order is not necessarily to be mourned, since it also reflects another phenomenon: a growing diversity of book prizes.

Not least among these is the Women’s prize for fiction, which was founded in 1992 in response to the fact that the 1991 Booker prize judges had failed to shortlist a single female author. This week, the 2019 prize was won by Tayari Jones for her novel An American Marriage, the story of a middle-class African American couple whose lives are brutally disrupted when the husband, Roy, is wrongfully convicted of rape. The novel follows the travails of his wife, Celestial, who must, Penelope-like, find survival strategies during her husband’s enforced absence. Jones’s book is a worthy successor to previous winners of the prize such as Andrea Levy’s Small Island that have proved to be important, lasting and popular, but that never made the Booker.

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