2017 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The surprising shortist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize has been announced,  it looks like this:

Paul Auster – 4 3 2 1
Emily Fridlund – History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid – Exit West
Fiona Mozley – Elmet
George Saunders – Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith – Autumn

My favourite band are releasing a single next month, for the first time in many years. It makes me want to bang my head against a wall – not in a heavy metal way, but in a why-have-they-done-that-it-is-the-worst-song-on-the-album way. I suspect many people will feel the same about this shortlist, culled from what was probably the strongest Booker longlist ever. There will also be murmurs of ‘told you so’ with regard to it being 50% American.

I didn’t make a prediction this year, but if I had it would probably have been the same as this one: https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/the-booker-shortlist-2017-who-ll-be-on-it-1.627345 – almost entirely wrong. It is as if the judges looked at the bookies’ odds, and the predictions and preferences of bloggers, and shortlisted the least fancied ones. The exceptions being George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo and Ali Smith’s Autumn.

George Saunders will now be the clear favourite. Lincoln In The Bardo is a typically kooky account of the night of Abraham Lincoln’s son’s death featuring the points of view of various (ex-)people in limbo. Truly novel, and much more readable than any attempts to describe it.

I read Ali Smith’s Autumn when it came out last year, and I have to confess to remembering nothing about it. I do love Ali Smith’s writing though so I will give it another read. I might re-read Exit West as well for the same reason, although I felt the surreal (magic realist?) device of doorways from one part of the world to another weakened it’s impact. I preferred How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia.

Many column inches will be devoted to Fiona Mozley the “29-year-old” (one of the youngest people ever to be shortlisted) “bookshop worker” (she works in the Little Apple Bookshop on York) and “PhD student” (she is doing a doctorate on medieval English forests as ‘forbidden landscapes’ at the University of York). I am not surprised to see her make the shortlist. Elmet is a memorable debut with a terrific climax. On the other hand I was slightly baffled by the inclusion of Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves on the longlist, and absolutely astonished to see it reach the shortlist. Not a bad book, but why has it been chosen ahead of so many other brilliant ones?

This may not the shortlist anyone expected, and the omission of such strong (and other-award-winning novels) make it appear weaker than it might have been, but it includes three or four authors I really love, so I am not complaining. (Sorry, did it sound like I was? I have a touch of toothache, please blame any grouchiness on that.)

I say three or four because the jury is out on one of them. The only book on the shortlist I haven’t finished yet is Paul Auster’s magnum opus 4 3 2 1. It is compelling reading, but at times so detailed that I want to yell: ‘stop trying to be Dickens!’ Effectively four books in one – or three books and a novella, if you want a spoiler – it traces four possible life-paths of one character, the same age as the author. I have been taking a break from it, five hundred pages in, so still a long way to go. If the judges (author Sarah Hall, artist Tom Phillips, travel writer Colin Thubron, literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh and their chair: crossbench peer Baroness Lola Young) really have read it twice, and are going to read it a third time, they must really, really love it. Or they just really love reading, which is as it should be.

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September 13, 2017 at 1:55 pm Leave a comment

2017 Man Booker Prize Longlist – the strongest ever?

The longlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize was revealed yesterday, and what an impressive list it is:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

The judges this year are the novelist Sarah Hall, the artist Tom Phillips, the travel writer Colin Thubron, literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh and, in the chair, Baroness Lola Young, a crossbench peer. They considered 154 novels: 144 submissions and another ten that they called in.

They will surely have a difficult job whittling it down to a shortlist of six – I can’t really complain about also-rans this year, can I? Their list pits some big-prize-winning novels against each other: the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Underground Railroad), the Goldsmiths Prize winner (Solar Bones), and the winner of the Walter Scott Prize and Costa Book of the Year (Days Without End).

Solar Bones consists of a single, two-hundred-page sentence, Home Fire is a contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone and the 880-page hardback edition of Paul Auster’s 4321 weighs enough to kill a small child if it falls off a shelf. So it is a heavyweight list, and also very diverse – although Baroness Young claimed they only noticed that afterwards. A happenstance which has occurred almost every year since I began following the Booker in the early 1990’s.

The only downside to such a strong list is that there are very few surprises – except perhaps the inclusion of a novel that isn’t scheduled for publication until November (Elmet by Fiona Mozley) Did somebody move the goalposts?

The shortlist will be announced on September 13th, and the winner of the £50,000 prize on October 17th at the traditional posh bingo ‘do’ at London’s Guildhall, which will be broadcast live on the BBC. Let’s hope they don’t blow the whole budget on a male presenter.

By the way, thanks to paddyjoe for pointing out that Helen Dunmore was longlisted once (in 2010). Occasionally I do think about checking my facts properly before I post, but then Donald Trump pops up on TV to remind me that  facts don’t matter any more anyway.

 

July 27, 2017 at 11:53 pm Leave a comment

Waiting For The Cut

Well, the cunctation had to stop sometime, so here I am again.

Since I last got round to posting we have lost some more fine writers, including David Storey who won for Saville in 1976 and Nicholas Mosley – who should have won the first Booker Prize in 1969 with Impossible Object – a piece of mind-bending meta-fiction that was way ahead of its time. (So far ahead that if it had been published this year it would be my favourite for the prize.) He also quit the judging panel in 1991 when the other judges refused to put Allan Massie’s The Sins of the Fathers on the shortlist, complaining that their choices lacked ideas.

Helen Dunmore also passed away, sadly this means that Birdcage Walk is no longer eligible, as the prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Although it probably makes no difference because, shockingly, she had never even been longlisted.

And – stop me if you have heard this before – A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize. He and translator Jessica Cohen sharing the £50,000 prize.

 

So, with the 2017 Man Booker longlist due on Thursday, it is time to dig out the old crystal ball. Except that we have barely the vaguest idea which 150 books the panel will have read, and judges have ventured so far off the beaten track in recent years, what’s the point? So let me tell you what I would pick…

 

Mohsin Hamid (Exit West) and Ali Smith (Autumn) would be on my list. They are two of my favourite authors, and their latest novels did not disappoint but, to be honest, they haven’t seared themselves on my memory.

I also had high hopes for Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, and I suspect it could be a strong contender judging by the positive critical reception, but I wish it had been called ‘Reservoir 8’. Each of the thirteen chapters depicts a yearsworth of events in a village following a girl’s disappearance, and it went on a few years too long for me.

I am currently enjoying Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom but, as Andrew Motion pointed out in his review in The Guardian, it does have a lot of “flabbily padded phrases”. It reminds me of a comment my English teacher left on an essay many years ago: “Some very intelligent use of a Thesaurus” he said, probably sarcastically.

Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a strong contender, but I’m afraid I have grown weary from reading so many of these epic, formulaic, literary-genre novels. (Others from recent years that spring to mind include Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien and The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.)

Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia manages the rare feat of being both literary and science fiction, and is as good as many previous longlisted titles. It would definitely be on my list, as would A Natural by Ross Raisin, which is an excellent examination of what life might be like for a secretly gay young footballer in Britain today.

Talking of Britain today brings me to Anthony Cartwright’s ‘Brexit novel’: The Cut. You may have heard of Ford Madox Ford’s Page 99 test, where you read page 99 to gauge the quality of a book. The Cut passes that test with flying colours because pages 99-101 contain a bravura riff on tiredness that brilliantly captures the post-crash zero-hours struggle of many people in Brexit Britain:

He lies on the bed, tired, shouldn’t be this tired. All of them the same. He hopes his mother has a sleep this afternoon. Tiredness has worked through everything, like the damp that warps the walls and the back fence and the wallpaper in the bathroom, has worked its way through the hills themselves, the undermining of the tunnels and great caverns that shift below them, slowly, not in human time, bent everything out of shape in the end. But the tiredness is human, that much is certain, and the damage done.

[…]

People are tired. Tired of clammed-up factory gates, but not even them any more, because look where they are working now, digging trenches to tat out the last of whatever metal was left. Tired of change, tired of the world passing by, tired of other people getting things that you and people like you had made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong. Tired of supermarket jobs and warehouse jobs and jobs guarding shopping centres. Work had always worn people out, the heat of the furnaces, the clang of the iron, but this is tiredness of a different order, tiredness that a rest will not cure, like a plague eating away at them all.

It’s worth longlisting for that alone.

Also near the top of my longlist would be An English Guide to Birdwatching by a Nicholas Royle. I found it mind-boggling, very funny, and the most surprising novel I have read since Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles. But ask yourself whether you can trust the judgement of someone who, if asked to choose the judges for next year, would mischievously invite both Nicholas Royles?

Finally, the book I most want to see on the longlist is H(a)ppy by the incomparable Nicola Barker. I hope to read H(a)ppy in the next few weeks, and if I end up putting it off in order to read other stuff that the judges have longlisted then heaven help the other stuff.

 

July 25, 2017 at 2:11 pm Leave a comment

RIP John Berger

I was in bed watching Ethel and Ernest die on Monday night when I heard that John Berger had passed away at the age of 90. Oh, the pain of living in the present world. He was the most humane writer of our times. I’m not sure who my favourite living writer is now. It is sad when that happens. The last time for me was when Muriel Spark died in 2006.

When Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel “G“, he (in)famously gave half the prize money to the Black Panther movement (although they were no longer active) in protest at the prize sponsors’ exploitation of workers in the Caribbean. The other half he used to to write a much better book: A Seventh Man – in which, with photographer Jean Mohr, he depicted the lives of migrant workers in Europe. A book more people should have read. A book more people should read.

As is King: A Street Story – md9419398471one of very few books I re-read (often around New Year for some reason) and one, you may have noticed, I mention at every opportunity. I was very disappointed that it wasn’t shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. (Come to think of it I am disappointed it didn’t win him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Perhaps he should have sung it?) Maybe the Black Panther thing made him persona non grata, although he was longlisted for From A To X in 2008.

One of my favourite living writers, Ali Smith, says of him that “a few minutes with Berger and a better world, a better outcome, wasn’t fantasy or imaginary, it was impetus – possible, feasible, urgent and clear. It wasn’t that another world was possible; it was that this world, if we looked differently, and responded differently, was differently possible.

That  better world looks less possible now, but maybe he has found it.

RIP John Berger

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Meanwhile, the judges for the 2017 Man Booker Prize were announced just before Christmas, they are: Baroness Lola Young (chair); the travel writer Colin Thubron, whose novel To The Last City was longlisted for the prize in 2002; novelist Sarah Hall (who was shortlisted for The Electric Michelangelo in 2004 and longlisted for How To Paint A Dead Man in 2009); artist Tom Phillips; and literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh. Their longlist will be revealed in July, the shortlist in September, and the winner announced on October 17th at London’s Guildhall.

January 6, 2017 at 1:44 pm Leave a comment

Man Booker’s American Sellout

Paul Beatty has won the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout – becoming the first American to win the prize, which was only open to writers from Commonwealth countries (and the Republic of Ireland) until the rules were changed in 2014.

Remarkably it gives small independent publisher Oneworld their second consecutive Booker Prize triumph.

The Sellout is his fourth novel, following The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Tuff (2000), and Slumberland (2008). It is set in a ghetto of Los Angeles called Dickens that has been removed from the map – a state of affairs a black man called Me decides to correct, only to find himself in the Supreme Court charged with violating the Thirteenth Amendment by “owning a slave” and reintroducing segregation.

Even though I stood to win a few bob if Madeleine Thien won the prize, I am delighted the judges made such a daring choice. It’s always good to see prize judges rewarding contemporary, political, humorous books, because there aren’t enough of them. And as Amanda Foreman (the chair of this year’s judges) said at the awards ceremony in London’s Guildhall, The Sellout is “painfully funny”. In her speech she also quoted fantasy author Ursula Le Guin: “the imagination is truly the enemy of bigotry and dogma.

Paul Beatty is clearly a lovely guy as well as a brilliant writer. He is a good choice for the first American winner of the prize – worth £50,000 (which, despite the fall in value of sterling is still worth at least as many dollars as there are n-words in his book…well, just about.)

The judges (Amanda Foreman, Olivia Williams, David Harsent, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Jon Day) read 155 novels and chose a shortlist of six books in which almost all the narrators are untrustworthy, saying they were looking for books that “take risks with language and form”, and that “writers work best when they are exploring at the outer limits of what is traditional, acceptable or conventional.

There is some consolation for Madeleine Thien, because Do Not Say We Have Nothing has just been awarded the Canadian Governor-General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. The jury for that award describing it as “an elegant, nuanced and perfectly realized novel that, fugue-like, presents the lives of individuals, collectives, and generations caught in the complexities of history.

I will leave you with this recurring bit of trivia: ten of the last eighteen Booker prizes have been won by the shortlisted author whose name came first alphabetically. Definitely worth checking out the new books by Naomi Alderman and Sebastian Barry then.

The fun, but not very predictive, list of runners and riders for next year’s Man Booker prize is up-and-running at:

www.goodreads.com/list/show/104929.Man_Booker_Prize_Eligible_2017

Sadly it looks like GoodReads is trying to bury Listopia, so it may not be as busy as it has been in recent years.

October 25, 2016 at 10:19 pm Leave a comment

The 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction – Shortlist

Here it is then, the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize:

Paul Beatty – The Sellout (Oneworld)
Deborah Levy – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ottessa Moshfegh – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
David Szalay – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta)

Interestingly, the only three BME authors on the longlist now make up 50% of the shortlist, which is also 50-50 male-female. That gender divide feels very stark to me. As in the world of politics, the centre ground seems to have become uninhabitable – the favoured books are either extremely masculine or very feminist.

According to the chair of the judges, Dr. Amanda Foreman, “the final six reflect the centrality of the novel in modern culture”, which is news to me.

In moving from the longlist to this shortlist, the judges have eliminated seven books, including six of the eight-and-a-half that I have already read. Memo to self: ignore the longlist next year, you know you want to.

I didn’t get round to Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh which, from the reviews I saw, I assumed to be one of the also-rans. I also didn’t fancy His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet because books about historical murders combine two genres I am not keen on, and I fear it might be as tedious as Arthur & George.

It’s possible therefore that I might be blindsided by those, as I was with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings last year. It is also possible that the judges will be contentious enough to give the prize to a profanatory satire or a book of short stories, but I still think the choice is between Deborah Levy and Madeleine Thien.

The six shortlisted authors each receive £2,500 plus ‘a specially bound edition of their book’ (let’s hope they never have to flog that on eBay). The £50,000 winner will be announced at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday 25th October. Some of the ceremony will be broadcast one of the BBC’s lesser channels and there will be a special Man Booker Prize edition of Artsnight on BBC2 the previous Saturday.

As far as I know, there is no truth in the rumour that from 2017 coverage of the prize will be moving to Channel 4 as ‘The Great British Book Off’ presented by former autobiography-of-a-monkey-longlisting-Booker-judge Sue Perkins.

September 13, 2016 at 2:02 pm Leave a comment

Some thoughts on the 2016 Manhood Booker Prize longlist

I used the n-word a lot when I was fifteen. I had to: we were made to study The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for English Literature O-Level. Years later I was much amused to discover English literature students in America were being made to read How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman (the controversial 1994 Booker Prize winning f-fest about a blind drunk Glaswegian). I mention this because I suspect the n-word appears far more often in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout than in Huckleberry Finn. (Surely somewhere there is a proper journalist counting exactly how many times for a shock-horror-headline.)

Beatty is perfectly entitled to use the n-word but, surprisingly, it can be found in several other novels on the longlist. Presumably those authors believe that since they are writing historical fiction, and that is the sort of language their characters would have used, they are entitled too. I am not so sure.

I enjoyed The Sellout. I love satire. I suppose I am more of a cynic than a critic. I’m glad the judges introduced me to this book and I hope they shortlist it, but I don’t think it is quite funny enough or, bizarre as it may sound, angry enough to be truly great. And it would need to be truly great to win the prize, because it would be far and away the most controversial winner ever.

“Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits to another and fuck cause and effect, because there wasn’t none, and if there was we didn’t see much of it”, says a character in Hystopia by David Means, which is set in the Year of Hate. (That’s an American Year of Hate, rather than Brexit Britain 2016.)

Dripping with testosterone, life is too short for this massive pool of wank. When I reached page one hundred I felt I deserved a medal. Kurt Vonnegut has a lot to answer for. I would have voted for Donald Trump if he promised to make it stop. To think I could have been re-reading Catch-22 with the Guardian’s reading group.

The reviewer in The Guardian described Hystopia as “a novel that uses extreme violence as the hook to keep you reading.” They could have said the same about The North Water by Ian McGuire – a book that is more of an Ice Station Zebra-wannabe than the new Moby Dick. The type of historical adventure that pings the Booker radar every few years – eg The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, English Passengers, Jamrach’s Menagerie etc. – only nastier. The sort of book ‘shitwick’ Brexit voters in Ian McGuire’s hometown of Hull, wallowing in the gory good-old-days where political correctness has no jurisdiction, and you can call a spade a spade, will enjoy.

At one point we are told that: “the most important questions are the ones we can’t hope to answer with words. Words are like toys: they amuse and educate us for a time, but when we come to manhood, we should give them up.”

Oh, manhood. Put it away.

Wyl Menmuir’s The Many is the most hallucinatory novel I’ve read since Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr and could add some creepy colour to the shortlist. The meaning of the title is a puzzle to many. I wonder if it is a coincidence that ‘man’ is most of the title? Because the most astonishing thing about The Many, is how womany it isn’t. Orphan protagonists are a common trope in children’s fiction because it is convenient for authors to get the parents out of the way, regrettably many male authors seem to adopt the same tactic with regard to female characters. At the end of The Many, I found the absence of Timothy’s wife astounding – it begs a whole ‘nother story.

A story of women sidelined or missing altogether in book after book. In 2016. Anyone thinking of applying The Bechdel Test to this longlist needn’t bother. This is a man’s man’s Man Booker Prize. If The Baileys Prize didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it. And I haven’t even mentioned David Szalay’s All That Man Is yet!

“Sometimes I worry about my attitude to women” one of Szalay’s believably awful male characters says at one point – or was it the author, talking to himself? I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that All That Man Is is a knowing critique of 21st century manhood.

There are female characters in J.M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus but – spoiler alert – sometimes men do very bad things to women in his novels.

 

So, having read have about eight and a half of the books on the longlist, have I changed my mind about the rash prediction I made in my last post, where I tipped Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing as the winner? No, but I did underestimate Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.

Deborah Levy is a terrific writer: unsettling; mystifying. According to Ron Charles in  The Washington Post, “the seductive pleasure of Levy’s prose stems from its layered brilliance.” That explains that then.

The title alone deserves a prize. Two common words – how can they not have been put together as a title before? Isn’t there a wrongness about hot milk? Surely milk is usually either cold or warm? I remember reading somewhere about a literature professor who spent a whole lecture unpacking and dissecting the first sentence of Great Expectations. There’s probably a whole lecture to be had about the title Hot Milk.

The bookies are probably right to make it the favourite. This year’s judges seem to have been drawn to wooziness, and it matches The Schooldays of Jesus and The Many for that without drifting too far into the Twilight Zone. I wasn’t convinced by the ending, but I am convinced that Deborah Levy will win the Booker Prize sooner or later.

September 12, 2016 at 1:57 pm Leave a comment

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