This week, book snobs from all over the world threw up their hands in despair when the long list for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for novels, was announced. That’s because the list includes a nominee that is not, traditionally speaking, a novel at all: “Sabrina,” a comic by Nick Drnaso.
“Sabrina” describes the fallout of a murder in Colorado, as conspiracy theories and Internet rumors abound. It quickly gained acclaim as a harrowing story about the way society consumes and spreads (mis)information. Zadie Smith described “Sabrina” as “the best book — in any medium — I have read about our current moment.” In its book review, the New York Times called it “a shattering work of art.”
But even with these accolades, can a story told with pictures really compete with the many formidable novels that have been published in the last year, including Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight” and Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”? According to the Man Booker judges, the answer is a resounding yes.
We can quibble over whether “Sabrina” should be the first graphic novel to make it onto the list. But on the question of whether graphic novels should be included at all, the Man Booker judging panel got it right. There is no stipulation in the prize’s rules that requires nominees to be heavy novels about the World War II or the English Reformation — even though that’s what judges have generally gone for in the past. If anything, the market for those books has been in decline over the past few years, as more and more readers turn to arguably more creative and certainly less established forms of writing. Why shouldn’t literary prizes acknowledge that and adapt to changing times?
This holds true for other awards, too. It’s what the Pulitzer Prize board recognized when it chose Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop album “DAMN.” for the music prize earlier this year, and what the Kennedy Center realized when it selected “Hamilton” for its annual honors just this week. Heck, if Bob Dylan can win a Nobel Prize in literature for his songwriting, a graphic novel should certainly be eligible for the Man Booker Prize. People are consuming new forms of media at increasing rates, and prizes need to keep up or settle for obsolescence.
This is about more than opening up to new mediums. Literary awards have long neglected diverse voices by imposing stringent restrictions on who and what can be considered. In its 49-year history, only nine writers of color have ever won the Man Booker Prize. The Pulitzer Prize has a slightly better record, but 84 percent of its winners between 1916 and 2016 were white. Opening up to different styles of writing is one way to break the pattern. That isn’t to say that the only people pushing the boundaries are writers from underrepresented backgrounds. But expanding the scope of the prizes will mean a more varied range of novels, and that could naturally translate to a more diverse set of novelists, whether varying in race, gender, ethnicity or ideology.
At the end of the day, the inclusion of “Sabrina” on the Man Booker long list is far from an insult to novel-writing or the written word. Rather, it’s a forward-looking acknowledgment that the literary world is changing, and that art can take unexpected forms. It is unlikely that Drnaso’s graphic novel will win the illustrious honor. Even so, bibliophiles everywhere should celebrate the fact that the Man Booker Prize is finally entering the 21st century.