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Jolly good Fellows

Jolly good Fellows

Blowing one’s own trumpet is, of course, a tad vulgar, but there are times when a gentle parp is justified. The announcement of the Royal Society of Literature’s new Honorary Fellows for 2021 is such an occasion. Founded in 1820 to “reward literary merit and excite literary talent”, the RSL is the club all literary folk aspire to belong to since, in its own words, it “encompasses the most distinguished writers working today”. Honorary Fellowships are especially prized because not only are they elected by current Fellows – peers – but because they recognise a long-standing contribution to the wider literary world. So the election this year of Gaby Wood, director of The Booker Prize Foundation, and Fiammetta Rocco, director of The International Booker Prize, represents two handsome, jaunty and thoroughly deserved feathers in their (and The Booker Prizes’) caps.

It is the time of year when newspaper books pages publish “What to read on holiday” lists – even if the government’s hokey-cokey on where you might be able to go on holiday makes choosing destination-specific titles a bit of a lottery. The Guardian came up with a new wheeze this year, and asked assorted literary prize-winners for their recommendations. So, naturally, a posse of Bookerites was present. Hilary Mantel suggested James Plunkett’s Strumpet City and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time; Douglas Stuart went for Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and the audiobook of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain; Lucy Ellmann, shortlisted in 2019, plumped for all of Jane Austen; Sarah Hall, multiple Booker Prize shortlistee, chose In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje; and this year’s International Booker Prize winner, David Diop, went for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. So no excuse for not taking plenty of toothsome reading for your holiday and, God forbid, quarantine too.

Given the current of the times, it is certain that David Diop’s International Booker Prize winning At Night All Blood is Black will be co-opted into the arguments about how European countries, and in his case France in particular, deal with their colonial past. President Macron has already made forays into this territory by speaking about France’s role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the whole wider debate continues. Diop is calm about his novel being used in these discussions: “If the book enters the political debate, that doesn’t bother me,” he said in a recent interview. “But I don’t want to say anything more than I have written. I am a man of writing. Readers must make what they want of the book. I don’t feel the need to add a verbal layer to it.” Whether he’ll be allowed – or allow himself – to leave it at that remains to be seen.

Of course race is an issue current in the books world too, though – at the risk of more trumpet blowing – the Booker Prize has a long history of honouring diverse voices. Looking back at anniversaries it is noticeable that the winners of the 1971, 1981 and 1991 Booker prizes were all writers of colour, respectively VS Naipaul with In a Free State, Salman Rushdie with Midnight’s Children, and Ben Okri with The Famished Road. Just to complete the stats, there have in all been 11 winners who were writers of colour out of 56 winners, some 20 per cent.  Let us hope that many more will follow in their footsteps.