Not seeing, how shall he know?

September 8, 2005 at 3:10 am Leave a comment

The psychology of judging prizes interest me. I suspect that human nature, human vanity, tends to lead people to choose a winner that other people will be unfamiliar with – in the hope that posterity will record them as having discovered some great new talent. Like greedy prospectors who eschew a well-panned river to go looking for a rich vein of literary gold elsewhere.

Alternatively, with four previous winners to choose from – and another three authors who have been shortlisted before – this year’s judges have the chance to select one of the most high-powered shortlists ever.

So do they pick the likes of Barnes, Coetzee, Ishiguro, McEwan and Rushdie, or do they throw their weight behind less well known authors who might just go on to a glittering career? And which category does Zadie Smith fall into anyway? Her rapid elevation to the literary high table surprises Smith herself – as she told The Guardian after the longlist was announced: “I was being described as this established, status quo novelist! In what kind of culture does three novels make you … it’s absurd! This is a lifetime’s work, and I’m an apprentice! Coetzee is an author. I’m a beginner.”

I haven’t got my hands on On Beauty yet, so I can only guess whether it will find favour with the judges, but I know I’m looking forward to reading it; and she’s certainly right about Coetzee: he is an author. One hell of an author. It would be a travesty if Coetzee is not on the list. Ditto McEwan, who is probably still the favourite to win. With Saturday he laid down a marker early in the year, setting the standard everyone else has to beat. Interestingly, Katie Owen in The Telegraph thinks that someone has:

“In ways far subtler and more effective than Ian McEwan in his recent novel Saturday, Smith deals with middle-class complacency in the face of the Iraq War.”

And that’s Ali Smith she’s talking about, not Zadie. It would be staggering for an outsider to win the prize this year with so many big names in the field, but I reckon she could be the dark horse. I thought Hotel World was a wonderful (albeit tragic) novel, which would have been perfect if only she hadn’t left one key character unexplored; and The Accidental has me enthralled at the moment.

Of course the Rushdie book is a contender as well: but a Rushdie book is a Rushdie book. OK, it may be a Rushdie-on-form book, but his characters always leave me cold – as has Ishiguro’s book: I thought he left too much blank canvas when painting his dystopic world of the future.

Sticking-my-neck-out time: I expect the judges to pick six of these seven…

John Banville – The Sea
Julian Barnes – Arthur and George
JM Coetzee – Slow Man
Ian McEwan – Saturday
Salman Rushdie – Shalimar The Clown
Ali Smith – The Accidental
Zadie Smith – On Beauty

No I don’t. I would expect them to include an outsider or two as well, maybe Tash Aw or James Meek – whose book Stephen Phelan in The Sunday Herald described as “the one novel I can remember clearly even after the others have blurred into each other a little.” This was after he had read all seventeen books in a week, by the way – mucho kudos to him for that.

So who will they leave out? Because that will surely be the story: Big names snubbed by Booker judges. But which?

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Accio Coetzee Man Booker Prize 2005: Shortlist

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