What is the literary world coming to?

September 8, 2008 at 2:46 pm Leave a comment

It seems like I’m the only one who loves the judges: everyone else in the bookblogosphere appears to hold them responsible for what they consider to be a disappointing longlist. So much so that they have even begun a quest for The Shadow Booker – the best book omitted from the longlist. The selection of the unBookerlike thriller Child 44 caused particular consternation. A number of people have decried it as the least literary, and therefore most bizarre, choice ever. Have they forgotten The Keeper of Truth by Michael Collins?

On the Man Booker forum Jamie Byng wrote: “I cannot respect a judging committee that decides to pick a book like Child 44, a fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that, over novels as exceptional as Helen Garner’s The Spare Room or Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country.” Adding: “I will declare my bias – as the publisher at Canongate I had a vested interest in seeing The Spare Room make the shortlist.”

I have read God’s Own Country, and I thought it was a very good debut novel, reminiscent of The Collector by John Fowles. Yes, perhaps it was worthy of a place on the longlist, maybe even the shortlist, but no more so than any of the (three-and-a-half of the) longlisted books that I’ve read so far.

As to the relative merits of Child 44 or The Spare Room, I can’t comment, not having read them yet (being as I am almost totally reliant on public libraries) but I do wonder… if they could include Child 44, whether they considered Ben Elton’s Blind Faith? One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the most excruciatingly funny satire since Vernon God Little. (It amuses me that some people have written it off as a Nineteen Eighty Four rip-off – would that be the Nineteen Eighty Four which George Orwell cribbed slightly from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We’?)

Maybe I’m just a pleb. Maybe I should get me coat. I confess: I have no ‘credentials’ to judge ‘literary’ fiction at all. Indeed, some of the books those other bloggers consider more deserving of a place on the list sound wearisomely worthy – the sort of books that can be a chore to read. Take The Truth Commissioner for example. Apparently there is a plot, but not until about 300 pages in. Different strokes for different folks as the saying goes.

Talking of which, PinkNews.co.uk had a slightly different take on Child 44’s inclusion – reporting it under the headline: “Gay author’s inclusion on Booker longlist upsets chattering classes”.

Cobblers! Tom Rob Smith’s sexuality had nothing to do with it. Anyway, who knew? I know I didn’t – but then I didn’t even know Philip Hensher won the Stonewall Award for Journalist of the Year in 2007. Maybe I need to upgrade my gaydar, because I have no idea about the sexual orientation of Mohammed Hanif either (although he does work for the BBC…) whose response to the longlist announcement was to ask “What is the literary world coming to?” – not referring to Child 44 being on the list, but to the inclusion of his own: A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which felt like a bit of a ‘boys’ book to me, despite the gay relationship. (That one did upset some of the ‘chattering classes’, Mr. PinkNews editor.)

In fact, it seems to my (admittedly ill-educated literary) eyes that there are a number of ‘boys’ books and ‘girls’ books on the longlist which might suggest a slight gender divide among the judges. In the blue corner we have: A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Child 44, The White Tiger and A Fraction of the Whole; and in the corner with the dressing-up box: The Clothes on Their Backs and Girl in a Blue Dress. Although one of the male judges certainly loves his clothes, so who knows?

Michael Portillo, the chair of the judges, also caused some harrumphing when he told the world (or, I should say, the Commonwealth) that he had wanted to ensure there was a ‘good geographical spread’ on the longlist. Hardly news. There has always been an almost formulaic geographical spread about Booker lists over the years – with most every shortlist seeming to include one author from each of the five corners of the Commonwealth. (Canada, the British Isles, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Australasia.)

Something for everyone then: male, female, gay, straight, Moslem, Jewish… No dead Belgians, of course, because they don’t count. Geography, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality…shall we get back to literariness now?

Unexpectedly there has been almost a concensus among those who have ploughed through the whole longlist that The Clothes on Their Backs is the best of them, although Fëanor, the maker of the Silmarils and the creator of the Tengwar called it “palpable dross” and Falstaff dismisses it is “trivial”. The Secret Scripture has also found some high regard in blog circles but, as someone else pointed out, surely the judges won’t want to award the prize to an Irish novel about death for the third year out of four.

Personally I’m hopelessly biased towards Berger. I would love him to win again, not least because his previous novels might get reprinted, most of them seem to have disappeared – King: A Street Story, and his Into Their Labours trilogy deserve much wider appreciation – but the pessimistic side of me fears the judges will axe From A to X from their shortlist tomorrow, which might look something like this:

Sebastian Barry – The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh – Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant – The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif – A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Michelle de Kretser – The Lost Dog
Salman Rushdie – The Enchantress of Florence

Or it might not. What do I know? Sometimes I think I must be a bit simple when it comes to literary fiction. There was an article on the history of the Booker prize in The Telegraph from which I learned that John Mullan considers Never Let Me Go to be superior to The Remains of the Day. Presumably then, he must understand what Ishiguro meant by setting Never Let Me Go in the late 1990’s? I know I don’t.

Meanwhile, another Booker retrospective in The Guardian at the weekend asked one judge from each of the previous forty years of the prize to give a little insight into the goings-on of the judging process, which revealed that Susan Hill took all the submitted novels on her honeymoon in 1975, and Fay Weldon regrets that these days “No one hits anyone.”

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Entry filed under: Booker, Byng, Canongate, Child 44, PinkNews.

The A to X of the 2008 Man Booker longlist 2008 Shortlist

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