Reading and judging the many submissions for The Green Carnation Prize was one of the toughest things I’ve done this year, but it’s also been one of the most fulfilling. Championing new writing is important to me and I’m grateful for this platform that raises awareness of some of the best LGBT authors working today. Meeting with the judges was like participating in the most rigorous and enjoyable book club ever. We discussed the books from many angles. Since this is a prize open to books in every genre it felt particularly difficult to compare them against each other. Also, it sounds like a cliché, but the short list was particularly strong. When we went into our final meeting to select a winner I truly felt any of these six accomplished books could win.
This year there was an added challenge to the selection process. We began reading submission in July, but during the course of the judging process Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won the Booker Prize – one of the most high profile book prizes in the UK. It’d be impossible to ignore the weight of this phenomenon where James’ long, complicated novel rose from relative obscurity to one of the most talked about books of the year. It also filled the shop front windows of many bookstores. Is it really right to award another book prize to a novel that’s become so high profile? Wouldn’t it be better to raise awareness for a foreign author like Erwin Mortier, an incredibly impressive debut author like Gavin McCrea, an established author that has stayed true to his subject matter like Patrick Gale or an accomplished literary trickster like Patricia Duncker (all of whom deserve to be more widely read)? But the prize isn’t about the author or the social landscape of publishing, it’s about the book.
“Sophie & The Sibyl” and “Mrs Engels” did stand out as particularly skilful accomplishments. Duncker’s novel is an engrossing tale told with humour, intelligence and pays tribute to one of the greatest writers in English literature. McCrea’s literary drag act of a book gives voice to a woman who was a footnote in the history books and creates a story which can be read in relation to many of the most pressing issues today – everything from the recent global recession to gay marriage.
But, when the judges sat down to talk long and hard over all the shortlist, the book that stood out as a shining masterpiece was “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” This is a challenging novel. No doubt. And I’m sure many people who bought a copy after it won the Booker didn’t finish reading it. I hope that with this award people decide to go back and read it again – if for no other reason than to enjoy two of the most original gay characters to appear in a novel for years.
Something many people probably haven’t considered about this novel is what a brave challenge it is to include such characters and explicit gay sex scenes. This novel centres around Bob Marley, one of the most celebrated figures in Jamaican history. While it goes past this extraordinary event surrounding the icon singer also considering many aspects of the drug trade, political & gang warfare and relations between the US & Jamaica, the fact it includes compelling openly gay characters will make it difficult for many people in Jamaica to accept. James has talked about this in a recent interview with Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian where he stated: “In this book, there’s a gay sex scene. And I thought the scene was important, because experiencing sex from a character was the only way he could accept any level of his queerness, which is why it is a blow-by-blow sex scene. The Jamaicans weren’t happy.”
Aside from any politics or book prizes, this novel is simply a stunning accomplishment that everyone should read.