Booker Prize holds a mirror to our dark times

Up for grabs: The Man Booker Prize winner receives £50,000 and often sees a spike in book sales.

Can fiction change the world? Racism, injustice, ecological destruction — the Man Booker Prize shortlist has been unveiled, and the new novels paint a bleak picture of modern society.

“People reading our books 100 years from now would know that we live in dark times.” That was the assessment of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, as he revealed the shortlist for 2018’s Man Booker Prize.

“The dominant theme of the novel in English today is of our species… challenged by anxiety, suffering from pain, and of our institutions and environment under threat,” Kwame says. Similarly, critic Leo Robson described the shortlist as “catalogues of major human crises”.

For example, the judges noted the “moments of horrifying cruelty” in Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black — a tale of a black slave fleeing captivity.

Violence also runs through Milkman, Anna Burns’s exploration of Belfast during the Troubles. “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died,” is the book’s first ominous line.

The Mars Room chronicles the destructive force of poverty in modern-day America, while The Long Take depicts a war veteran struggling to reintegrate into a racist society. In Everything Under, family life is the source of conflict as its heroine, Gretel, is abandoned by her mother.

Meanwhile, Richard Powers’s epic The Overstory stands out with its environmental message. In the book, nine strangers unite to save a forest from destruction.

The books may reflect burning social issues like racism, poverty and environmental destruction, but how much impact can they actually have?

This question has fascinated scientists as well as writers. In a recent study, psychologist Keith Oatley claimed that “comprehension of stories shares areas of brain activation with the processing of understandings of other people” — in short, reading creates empathy.

Philosopher Gregory Currie notes that increased empathy may prompt “reductions in sexual and racist stereotyping”. Most famously, Uncle Tom’s Cabin — an 1852 novel about the horrors of slavery — is widely thought to have helped the case for the abolition of slavery in America.

But can novels really change the world?

Paper power

Of course, some argue. Fiction is among the greatest ways to forge change. Unlike hollow political slogans or cold facts and figures, fiction plays upon our emotions and our innate sociability. Entering into another person’s life leads to genuine understanding, understanding leads to action, and action causes change.

No, others respond. A great novel can inspire and uplift us, but change the world? Not so much. Economics, globalisation, politics, science: these are the true drivers of social development and have power beyond the author’s pen. Expecting novels to change the world is asking too much, of writers and readers alike.

You Decide

  1. Can fiction change the world?
  2. Do you agree that we are living through “dark times”?

Activities

  1. What is your favourite book? Think about what messages that book might have — what does its main character believe in, and what do they do? Do you think the book can have a positive influence on the world? Why/why not?
  2. Think of a social issue that you care deeply about. Now plan a short story that could raise awareness of that issue. Who is its main character? What does that character do in the story? What happens in the beginning, middle and end? Write the opening chapter of your story, and plan out the rest of it in bullet points.

Some People Say...

“If literature is not an argument with the world then it is nothing.”

Salman Rushdie

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Man Booker Prize will be awarded on October 16, with the winner receiving prize money of £50,000. Despite the serious subject matter of each book, they are not entirely bleak. “Reading these has not left me in a state of depression,” said judge Val McDermid, saying that some of the books also offered “moments of toe-curling hilarity.”
What do we not know?
Who will win. According to Odds Checker, the current favourite is The Overstory by Richard Powers. If he does win, Powers would become the third American writer in a row to take home the prize. This would be controversial as American writers have only been eligible to take part since 2014 — a move which angered some English writers and critics.

Word Watch

Man Booker Prize
A major book prize awarded every year for the best original novel written in English. The winner is generally assured international renown and a big boost in book sales.
The Troubles
A bloody conflict in Northern Ireland between the 1960s and 1998. It was fought between those who wanted the region to remain within the UK and those who wanted a united Ireland instead. Over 3,500 people died in the fighting.
The Long Take
Notable for its combination of poetry and prose.
Everything Under
Written by Daisy Johnson. At 27, she is the youngest author to ever be included on the Booker Prize shortlist.
Study
“Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds,” published in Trends in Cognitive Science.
Empathy
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Gregory Currie
For more on this, read The Conversation link in Become An Expert.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Written by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was a literary sensation, becoming the best selling book of the 19th century besides the Bible.