Archive for September, 2006

The WoMan Booker Prize 2006

The femininisation of the Booker continues apace: it’s not just the judges (three out of five) or the shortlist (four out of six) but this year the Booker is also in danger of becoming the BookClubber Prize. Several reading groups have been chosen to read the shortlisted titles and their views will be passed onto the judges before their final deliberations. They are also blogging away at the official Man Booker site. Sarah Waters seems to be the favourite among them so far, although I’m not sure whether some of the comments are serious or ironic, especially this one:

“There’s just not enough books about Lesbian relationships during the blitz !” (undertow)

The trouble I have with Sarah Waters is that although she is a very good writer, and a great storyteller, her work seems too familiar – like a play using a recycled backdrop. Someone called Hamilton hit the nail on the head:

“I was disappointed. It felt as if the research hadn’t been digested – like walking through a museum, not real life. Or one of those period TV series full of highly polished Ford Anglias. Mary Wesley with the wit taken out and dialogue rewritten by Enid Blyton.” “…The worst, shoddiest Man Booker listed book (in my humble opinion) I’d ever read.”

I suspect Hamilton might be a man.

I do wonder how many male members there are in these reading groups. Are they gender-balanced? Have they been chosen to be representative in any way? Do they actually like literary fiction? I’m not sure they do. The Man Booker Prize Library Reading Groups’ Blog is not short of comments expressing disappointment with the shortlisted novels…

“This was a fitting title for a depressing read and certainly not a winner in my view.” (Anne Cooke on Carry me Down)
“I’m afraid that I didn’t get very involved in this.” (Kathryn, on The Inheritance of Loss)
“I did start The Night Watch when it first came out and frankly got a bit bored.” (Bev)

“[The] general consensus on The Night Watch was negative. Several people had read this when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize earlier in the year, and folk were equally underwhelmed then.” (Sally)
“Some people had read The Secret River and enjoyed it although, again, most of those who had tackled it felt it lacked originality…” (Sally)
There are also signs of a distinct impatience towards anything ‘clever’ – like Mother’s Milk:

“I certainly didn’t like it and found it a chore rather than a pleasure to plough through.” (Yvonne)
“Although it’s keeping my attention, it’s more out of horror than enjoyment. “ (Karen)

“One lady found it heavy and quite depressing and not a feel good read.” (Bev)

“Sorry judges this book seems like an utter waste of time.” (Carol)

The precocious use of language by children in Mother’s Milk is a particular sticking point with a number of readers, which reminds me of the complaint someone made about Adrian Mole in the 1980’s: that no thirteen year old would use the word ‘nihilistic’ – well who else but a thirteen year old boy would?

The only other man on the shortlist – Hisham Matar – isn’t faring quite so badly, although one comment – “It was an easy read and rattled along” – makes me wonder if the Booker is being dumbed down faster than Ricky Gervais’ sit-com within a sit-com in Extras. I’m not the only one who is concerned.

“This year’s stunning omission of Peter Carey’s Theft, A Love Story reflects a dumbed-down Booker,” says Christopher Bantick in The (Brisbane) Courier Mail, “it is simply nonsense, on the basis of literary objectivism, that Carey’s book is not significantly better than the two Australian authors who made the coveted shortlist.”
Yes, Christopher, but the two Aussie writers who did make the shortlist are women – get with the programme!
Is the prize heading the way of the (UK version of the) TV show Big Brother? Gay winner? Check. Transsexual? Check. Asylum seeker? Check. Tourette’s? Check.
I expect next year’s Booker panel to include three or four judges from an ‘ethnic’ background with an unstated mandate to break the politically-troubling run of white winners. It would be far too simplistic to expect a panel just to pick the best book. Axes have to be ground.

September 21, 2006 at 2:17 am Leave a comment

The Smoking Gun

I am amused by the hoo-hah about David Mitchell not reaching the shortlist – Black Swan Green is nowhere near as highly rated as his previous novels and was only the bookies’ favourite by virtue of him being the most well known author on the longlist. The omission of Peter Carey’s Theft is a bit more dubious though. Are the judges really trying to tell us that it isn’t one of the six best novels of the year? Or has it been elbowed aside because he has already won the prize twice? Yes. I have no doubt about it: if that book had been written by an unknown author it would have made the list.
Read what the chair of the judges Professor Hermione Lee said in The Times about the omission of Mitchell, Carey and Andrew O’Hagan:

“These were all books that had extremely strong support and books which we thought were really considerable and moving and impressive, but in the end some books are more exciting and interesting to you than others.”

“What I feel, though, is that they are such talented and exceptional and splendid writers that they don’t need us. They will go on regardless.”
The judges change every year, but the psychology remains the same: they all want to ‘discover’ a great new talent. To choose an author or novel that everyone already knows about would make them feel a tad redundant – which is why so many favourites fail to make the shortlist.

September 17, 2006 at 10:28 pm Leave a comment

The 2006 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The 2006 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

Kiran Desai – The Inheritance of Loss
Kate Grenville – The Secret River
M.J. Hyland – Carry Me Down
Hisham Matar – In the Country of Men
Edward St Aubyn – Mother’s Milk
Sarah Waters – The Night Watch

The news I’d dreaded really: “Sarah Waters heads Booker shortlist.”
Firstly, although I think Sarah Waters is a very good writer, her books are a bit on the populist side for the Booker, aren’t they? Surely Fingersmith was more suited to the WH Smith Thumping Good Read Award (if it’s still going) than the Booker?
Secondly because it meant no Carey or Mitchell – whose books I would be reading anyway. Perhaps that’s the intention. I think judges like to use the shortlist to draw people’s attention to books they wouldn’t otherwise read.
I think Hisham Matar had some help from Sod’s Law in making the shortlist. For weeks now I have been waiting for someone to return a copy of In the Country of Men to a library I frequent and today, when I checked the library catalogue online, it had turned up. I sped round there to get hold of it – only to find them shut due to a leaky roof. So that was a couple of hours reading time wasted chasing a wild goose. I expect someone will have reserved it by the time they are open again.
As I expected, the majority of women on the judging panel pushed the gender balance of the shortlist away from the male-dominated norm. However, the last time there were four women on the shortlist they all lost – to DBC Pierre in 2003. I don’t expect that to be allowed to happen this year though. There’ll be a woman winner this year come hell or high water, as sure as 2004 was bound to produce a gay winner. Axes have to be ground. I just hope the prize goes to MJ Hyland or Kiran Desai (I’m looking forward to reading The Inheritance of Loss – I thought her first novel Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard was wonderfully funny.)
As usual, the bookies have made the most well known author the favourite but, if the judges put their unground axes aside, I see this being a two horse race. There are two books on the shortlist that I was certain would be there – the two books that seem to impress everyone who reads them:
Carry Me Down and Mother’s Milk.
My instinct is that one of those two will win. If I were a betting man and I’d seen the odds the bookies were offering yesterday (St Aubyn 14-1, Hyland 16-1) I would have bitten their hands off.
The winner will be announced on Tuesday October 10th.

September 14, 2006 at 5:46 pm Leave a comment

My shortly-to-be-read-list

The 2006 Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, but since there’s little chance of me reading the minds of the judges correctly, here’s my shortlist – based mainly on the books I am most looking forward to reading: Peter Carey, Kiran Desai, MJ Hyland, David Mitchell, Andrew O’Hagan, Barry Unsworth.

After telling the world what a strong impression Peter Carey’s book made on them with its vigour and energy, it would be strange if the judges left him off the shortlist – although if cover design was a factor it would be dead in the water. Whoever designed such a mundane cover (particularly for a novel about an artist) would be better employed designing road signs. (On second thoughts, maybe that was the last job they were sacked from.)

I will also be surprised (and very disappointed) if Maria Hyland doesn’t make the cut. This year, the official Man Booker website includes a forum for people to debate the runners and riders, and there’s a lot of love for Carry Me Down.

Edward St Aubyn’s style has also made a big impression over there, and the few people who have got hold of a copy of James Robertson’s novel have enjoyed it a lot. I suspect it will be either/or between Robertson and O’Hagan though – the judges aren’t likely to include two books with a religious theme from Scottish writers, are they? Perm two from those three.

I don’t rate Howard Jacobson’s chances, but then I did once give up on one of his books three-quarters of the way through because I just didn’t care what happened to the characters. Possibly because I’m not a middle-aged, straight Jewish bloke going through a mid-life crisis. This year’s judges may have a similar lack of empathy, what with the majority of them being women – something which might lead to the shortlist being more evenly gender-balanced than usual. Although this could lead to some controversial choices…

At 82 years-of-age Nadine Gordimer is the oldest author on the longlist. She won the Booker way back in 1974 for The Conservationist, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Yet according to David Isaacson’s review in The Independent “she’s a verb short of a full sentence”! Jane Gardam was less impolite in her review in The Guardian, remarking that “this is not Wordsworth”.

As for Claire Messud, I’m still not sure how she qualifies for the prize – she was born in America, and lives and works there. Maybe she qualifies as a citizen of one of the countries of the Commonwealth through one of her parents – whatever – someone is driving a coach and horses through the spirit of the rules.

Meanwhile if Kate Grenville or Sarah Waters are on the list, some (including me) would suggest that it is at least partly because one or more of the judges are fans of their previous work. (Ditto David Mitchell, but being the bookies’ favourite may well be the kiss of death for him anyway – it usually is.)

September 13, 2006 at 10:57 pm Leave a comment


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