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.

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 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.

But can novels change the world?

Paper power

Of course, some argue. Fiction is among the greatest ways to forge change. 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.

You Decide

  1. Can fiction change the world?


  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?

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 of each book, they are not all bleak. Judge Val McDermid said 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.

Word Watch

Man Booker Prize
A major book prize awarded every year for the best original novel written in English.
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.
“Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds,” published in Trends in Cognitive Science.
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

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