Marlon James’ win is a win for literature
Philip Ellison 14 October, 2015
Literary history was made this week when it was announced that Marlon James had won the 2015 Man Booker Prize; the first Jamaican author ever to do so. His novel, ‘A Brief History Of Seven Killings’, is inspired by the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the 1970s.
The story shifts in tone dramatically as it skips from one narrator to another, creating in the process a collective patchwork memory of Jamaica in that period which encompasses all manner of experiences. “It was very important to me that there were gay characters in the book,” James told The Telegraph prior to the awards. “To reflect the gayness and hypocrisy in Jamaica… When you grow up in a homophobic country, you’re sitting on a time bomb.”
James isn’t the first gay author to win the Booker; Allan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Line Of Beauty’, a tale of sexual adventure and social climbing in Thatcher’s London, claimed the prize in 2004. But having a gay writer of colour win one of the most prestigious awards in the publishing world is nothing if not cause for celebration.
James’ victory comes just days after bestselling author Meg Rosoff waded into the on-going debate around diversity in literature, decreeing that fiction should not “have the job of being a mirror”, especially when it comes to writing for children. She was referring specifically to ‘Large Fears’, a children’s book which was self-published via Kickstarter by authors Myles E Johnson and Kendrick Daye, as they believed it was important to tell stories about black LGBT characters.
“There are not too few books for marginalised children, there are hundreds of them, thousands of them,” Rosoff, claimed, arrogantly or simply naively assuming that she spoke for all authors and all readers. “I really hate this idea that we need agendas in books,” she continued on Facebook. “A great book has a philosophical, spiritual, intellectual agenda that speaks to many many people — not just gay black boys. I’m sorry, but write a pamphlet about it. That’s not what books are for.”
Many were quick to point out, however, that Rosoff, as a straight, white, cisgender woman, was making some pretty grand statements about what readers want, and that it was arrogant to assume that her books about straight white characters were somehow more accessible and important than stories featuring queer characters and people of colour.
“It almost hurts to know that such accomplished authors can be unaware of how white children’s publishing is,” says librarian Edith Campbell, whose praise of ‘Large Fears’ on Facebook sparked Rosoff’s comments. “They fail to see that people of colour are seldom publishers or editors, or that there just as seldom writers who are featured on panels or at book events.”
So to Rosoff, who believes that books about gay black boys don’t make great literature, I simply say; pick up this year’s Man Booker winner. And congratulations, Marlon; you’ve made the prize relevant again.