When she learned that she would share the 2019 Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo, Margaret Atwood made an interesting comment: “I kind of don’t need the attention, so I’m very glad you’re getting some,” she said, nodding to Evaristo, the first black woman to win the prize. “That makes me happy.”
You can read those words in several ways. You can read them as arrogance: ‘I need another Booker? I’m Margaret Atwood.’
You can read them as a humblebrag: ‘I’m happy to share one of my many, many honors with Bernadine.’
You can read them as a statement of fact and genuine delight at another’s success, which is probably the fairest reading.
Or you can read Margaret Atwood’s words as a slightly rueful comment on her complicated celebrity. We think this last reading also has merit.
Most of Atwood’s headlines are fine. Her latest novel, The Testaments, has been exceedingly well-received. But as Russell Smith noted in the Globe & Mail, she has detractors, many of whom were angered by her recent (rightful) protest of the University of British Columbia’s wrong-headed dismissal of creative writing professor Steven Galloway. Smith chronicled “an outpouring of hatred” on social media in the week after the Booker announcement. Atwood was scorned as a traitor to women and a “bootlicker of the patriarchy.” Misogyny and racism were purportedly located in her fiction. Inevitably, there were calls for media to cancel her.
Meanwhile, in London, she was subjected to a different sort of abuse. Atwood was collateral damage in outrage over the Booker jury’s decision to flout its own rules and award the prize to two authors instead of one. A popular narrative is that Evaristo’s moment was ruined by having to share the award with an established white woman. Said the writer Sunny Singh: “The lesson from Booker in 2019 was that white supremacy could still not bear to reward a prodigious black woman writer a win of her own.”
One member of the Booker jury, writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch, made matters worse by speaking to the Guardian about the difficulty of choosing a winner: “How do you judge the titanic career, the contribution to culture of Margaret Atwood, against the sheer beauty of (short-listed author) Elif Shafak’s Istanbul?” Hirsch was probably trying to underline the difference between a novelist with an important sociopolitical message and a writer delivering exquisite prose. Her comment was nevertheless read as suggesting Atwood won on the merits of her career rather than on the merits of The Testaments. Sam Jordison, publisher of another shortlisted author, said Hirsch’s comment meant the fix was in for the legendary Atwood: “It’s one thing to feel bad about losing. It’s another to feel you were never in the game…. It seemed that we had not had a hope from the start.”
Does anyone, let alone Margaret Atwood, need that kind of attention?