The longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize was published earlier this week. It's often an interesting list as it is open to the best work published in the UK in a given year by a citizen of the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. This includes most of the English-speaking world outside North America -- books published in India, South Africa, Australia, chunks of the Caribbean and elsewhere all are eligible for the prize.
The criteria? It is to be awarded to "the best novel in the opinion of the judges." And here's where the fun begins. Those judges change annually, and are often a fairly eclectic group. For instance, while this year's panel is headed by literary critic Peter Stothard, last year's was chaired by Stella Rimington, former head of MI-5 (yeah -- spooks!) and an author of suspense thrillers. Rimington's choice -- and her choice of books -- sparked fury and outrage among the literary establishment and cognoscenti last year, as she opted for books that are great reads. The shortlist looked like this:
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
- Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
- Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
- Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
- Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (already reviewed here)
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Well, the world didn't come to an end, and we're into another Booker season. This time around, Peter Stothard says the panel is emphasizing works and not authors -- which is why some high-profile authors with new books just out, like Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan, Zadie Smith and, yes, John Banville, didn't make the list. Also, Stothard wanted to identify books he felt people might want to read on beach -- but that they definitely would want to bring back from the beach to re-read, and that, on re-reading, they would find more and more there in the pages to ponder. So, here is this year's long list, which will be trimmed down to half-a-dozen finalists in September. (An asterisk indicates titles that are available in the United States.)
- *Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- Phillida by Andre Brink
- Communion Town by Sam Thompson
- *Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
- Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
- The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
- The Yips by Nicola Barker
- *Skios by Michael Frayn
- The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Ewan Eng
- The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
- Umbrella by Will Self
- *The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
But the two lists do have one important thing in common: both are ignoring new works by iconic authors in favor of lesser-known or new writers. (I'll be curious to say if critics are as ferocious about Stothard bypassing Banville, Amis and MacEwan as they were about Rimington overlooking books by Amitav Ghosh and Michael Ondaatje last year.) But one of the things I do like about both shortlists-- regardless of my thoughts about specific books -- is that it shakes up the landscape a bit. Whether or not some of these authors and books on the shortlist will go on to have a career like those of Amis, MacEwan or Ondaatje and emerge as revered literary icons, who knows? Does it matter? After all, authors who have already made a name for themselves are going to attract critical but respectful attention by reviewers and attention by bookshop buyers and readers, who know theyse are authors they should read. What I enjoy about both lists is that they draw attention to books that may be every bit as good -- perhaps even better -- but which, because they are written by authors who may be younger or have a lower profile, wouldn't automatically command attention.
Moreover, what critics of the prize's judges last year have overlooked is that picking the "best book of the year" should be controversial because one person's "best book" will always be different from someone else's candidate; even their criteria will differ. True, there are basic standards as to the kind of book that should be considered for a prize of this kind -- but I don't think those are ever gregiously violated. Let's be honest: none of the shortlisted books were penned by Sophie Kinsella or James Patterson, or are formulaic stuff churned out at the rate of a book a year. And once that basic threshold is crossed -- well, all bets are off. I think it's quite reasonable for a panel of judges to conclude that a book by an unknown made more of an impact on them -- even if imperfect -- than a technically accomplished book by someone already in the canon that happened to underwhelm them.
So -- on with the race! I'll be reading Michael Frayn's novel shortly, and already have raved about Mantel's sequel on this blog. There are two or three others that I'll want to read and probably will review, especially Andre Brink's Phillida. Stay tuned!