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Sent to Coventry

Sent to Coventry

England’s City of Culture for 2021 is Coventry, the Midlands town best known for its modern cathedral, its car industry, and the ska band The Specials. A full programme of events has yet to be revealed, that will happen in the Spring, when things kick off on 15 May. A bit of history has already been announced, however. The Booker Prize Foundation, the prizes’ charitable wing, has been working with Coventry’s City of Culture team on a partnership that will see the International Booker Prize winner announcement made from Coventry on 2 June – the first time this has happened outside London. Later in the year, the city will also host an event with the Booker Prize shortlistees. Coventry was also the home of Lady Godiva, so one wonders who the prizes have lined up to ride naked through the city on horseback, their long hair covering their modesty, while holding a copy of the winning book.

Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker prize winner and Nobel laureate, has a new novel just out, Klara and the Sun. It has prompted him to wonder about the pressures now faced by younger, less established novelists (such as his daughter Naomi, whose novel Common Ground is coming out in a couple of weeks). He thinks there is a now fear of being trolled or cancelled that holds young novelists back since they “rightly perhaps feel that their careers are more fragile, their reputations are more fragile and they don’t want to take risks”. It they do, then an “anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery”. Consequently, he believes that there is some self-censoring going on and tyro novelists avoid writing from certain viewpoints or conjuring up characters outside their immediate experiences. “I think that is a dangerous state of affairs.”

The example of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the current International Booker Prize winner and the youngest ever recipient of the prize, gives weight to Ishiguro’s view. Rijneveld is a poet as well as a novelist and had been lined up to translate the work of Amanda Gorman into Dutch. Gorman, the young poet who spoke so thrillingly at President Biden’s inauguration, is African American, Rijneveld is white, and voices were raised questioning why a black translator hadn’t been chosen instead. Rijneveld has now withdrawn from the project. It is Amanda Gorman herself who might be the real loser here since, according to her publisher, on hearing that Rijneveld was to be her translator, she was “immediately enthusiastic about the choice for the young poet”.

Bernardine Evaristo has also been thinking about young writers. She won the Booker Prize at the age of 60 and when asked if she wished it had come earlier in her career she was emphatic that it had happened at exactly the right time. “There are all kinds of pressures on younger writers who become instant stars and many struggle to cope,” she said. “They worry so much about writing a brilliant second book that they never actually produce one. Other writers feel depressed when their second book doesn’t do as well. Breaking through at the age I did has been a validation of decades of dedication.” She also said that she’s had a “heady time” since winning and that being older has helped ensure she was not swayed off course. She may have a point: on winning the Booker Prize for the first time, Hilary Mantel famously said that she intended to spend the prize money on “sex and drugs and rock’ n’ roll”. Though she has yet to vouchsafe whether she followed through on the promise.

A glimpse at the sort of elevation that comes with winning the Booker Prize. This year’s victor, Douglas Stuart, featured at the (virtual) Jaipur Literary Festival and a quick look at fellow speakers show the sort of company he now keeps: to pick out just a few, there were the Nobel Prize winners Malala Yousafzai and the economist Joseph Stiglitz, the fabled linguist Noam Chomsky, the actor-author-Miss World Priyanka Chopra, as well as someone