Man Booker Prize 2010 Speculation

July 21, 2010 at 12:58 am 1 comment

Half the year has gone already so it must be nearly time for the Man Booker Prize longlist. Let’s take stock.

The main question, after historical novels had a virtual monopoly on last year’s shortlist, is will this year’s judges favour a broader range of titles?

The Guardian has suggested that The Truth by Peter Temple might be a contender, after he became the first crime novelist ever to win Australia’s top literary prize – the Miles Franklin award, and they point to Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 being longlisted two years ago.

According to Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prize, there are “no exclusions”. His advice to the judges is that “if you consider a novel – whether it’s crime, romance or science fiction – is really fabulous in every particular, then judge it with the same criteria you’d use for a literary novel, and if you agree, you must include it”

Another clear signal from the organisers that crime novels could be in the frame was the inclusion of Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill on The Lost Booker longlist for 1970, and both of those authors have novels out this year (Tigerlily’s Orchids and The Woodcutter respectively). Michael Collins’ Midnight in a Perfect Life might also be under consideration – he was shortlisted in 2000 for The Keepers in Truth.

But if a ‘crime’ novel were to make the longlist my hunch would be Patricia Duncker’s The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge in which a mass suicide on the eve of the Millennium leads a ‘sect-hunter’ to investigate the mysterious composer she suspects to be culpable, and who falls in love with her. Dense to the point of being overwritten, it is no mere page-turner.

I suspect it must be difficult for a prize jury to convince themselves that they should recommend something truly grievous to thousands of readers as being the best book of the year though. (Although Booker juries do have form in this regard: The Sea and The Gathering spring unwelcomely to mind.) However, they have to choose from what is on offer, and as Orange prize judge Daisy Goodwin complained earlier this year: “there’s a lot of grimness out there.

Take the blurb for Simon Lelic’s debut novel Rupture, another outside contender for the longlist: “In the depths of a sweltering summer, teacher Samuel Szajkowski walks into his school assembly and opens fire. He kills three pupils and a colleague before turning the gun on himself.”

A grim subject does not necessarily make for a miserable book though. Blogger Scott Pack describes Ray Robinson’s Forgetting Zoë as “disturbing, certainly, but very very beautiful.” It tackles the subject of Stockholm Syndrome and has echoes of the Josef Fritzl case, as does Emma Donoghue’s Room, which has created quite a strong literary buzz.

I wonder whether, up against so much misery, the humour of Ian McEwan’s Solar might …erm… shine, despite being not all that well received by the critics. Which leads me to look starwards and wonder whether, after the hoo-ha Kim Stanley Robinson provoked last year, publishers might have submitted a bit of speculative fiction for the judges consideration?

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts was the book Robinson maintained should have won last year, so will Roberts’ latest – New Model Army – have been entered by Gollancz? Do genre imprints like Gollancz even submit books?

“It is no stretch at all to imagine New Model Army being taken very seriously indeed as a piece of literary dystopia, on a par with Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (it’s actually better) or the speculative work of Margaret Atwood” says, erm… bookgeek.

There are also several writers with Booker ‘form’ who have published ‘speculative’ fiction this year: Salvage, the latest novel from Robert Edric, who is highly regarded for his historical fiction (he was longlisted for Peacetime in 2002 and Gathering the Water in 2006) is an “Orwellian vision” set in Northern England a hundred years from now after climate change has wrought havoc, leaving large areas of the country flooded. Also set in the future (2024 to be exact) is All That Follows, the latest from Jim Crace – who was shortlisted (and, as I never miss the chance to say, should have won) in 1997 for Quarantine.

Then there is China Miéville – he of the ‘New Weird‘ – who ought to have been on the radar last year for The City and The City (which won him his third Arthur C. Clarke award). His latest novel, Kraken, begins with the disappearance of a giant squid from the Natural History Museum – a plotline Iris Murdoch sadly neglected. It is a treat to read and therefore unlikely to be taken seriously by prize judges. (I think it’s also probably safe to assume that the judges will be sticking to the Commonwealth here on Earth rather than venturing into Commonwealth space with Peter F. Hamilton’s The Evolutionary Void.)

Something else that might be too weird for the Booker (although there can never be anything too weird in my opinion) is the fantastic imagination of Jasper Fforde. If the judges haven’t been asked to consider Shades of Grey they have been deprived. Any book in which there is a black market for spoons has to be worth reading.

And what about young adult fiction? In 2001 the judges flirted with it when they longlisted The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials III). So how about the final part of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy: Monsters of Men? It is hard to find a review that doesn’t give it a five-star rating. I have only read the first part (The Knife of Never Letting Go) and that was one of the more emotionally draining reads of recent years, easily a match for Pullman. According to Daniel Hahn in The Independent “a 40-year-old lawyer was on the Tube when he reached a certain (now infamous) scene and had to grab a handrail to steady himself for fear of passing out.”

In a debate on the official Man Booker forum I took a punt on Monsters of Men being the ‘Thirteenth Book’ on the longlist – that’s the one that comes straight out of left field, as the Americans would say, the ‘Me Cheeta’ or ‘Child 44’. Truth be told, I am hoping that that ‘accolade’ goes to Little Hands Clapping the latest novel by Dan Rhodes (accurately described as “reliably odd, but fabulous” by The Guardian) which is one of my favourite books of 2010.

Overall I am finding this to be a wonderful year for imaginative fiction (which ought to be a tautology, but all too often isn’t) and that’s even before I get my hands on a copy of Nicola Barker’s Burley Cross Postbox Theft. Maybe some of these novels aren’t ‘literary’ enough to get a kite mark from the Booker judges, but even so they have no excuse for presenting us with a list chop bang full of historical fiction.

That said, a couple of historical novels I would be happy to see on the list are The Clay Dreaming by Ed Hillyer (in which a member of the Aboriginal Australian cricket team investigates his ancestry while touring England in 1868) and Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer. (Does the 1970s count as history yet?)

What else? Well, The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder sounds like just the sort of novel that prize juries find irresistible. In fact the temptation to include Shakespeare on the longlist will be doubly hard to resist because Mr Shakespeare himself has a new book out. (Inheritance, by Nicholas of that ilk.)

Some other possible contenders with an historical setting include: The Long Song by Andrea Levy; The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon; Into Suez by Stevie Davies; Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy (another candidate for the ‘Thirteenth’ place?) and The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore, which is set in the Soviet Union during the last days of Stalin – a milieu always guaranteed to impress literary prize judges.

This brings me back to the debate about ‘faction’ which rumbles on, and rightly so. In a discussion at the Hay Festival, Dunmore said she was “very wary” of putting words into the mouths of real characters; while the Coalition government’s new curriculum guru Niall Ferguson said that he no longer reads historical fiction because it “contaminates historical understanding“; and military historian Antony Beevor suggested that historical novelists ought to mark in bold type the “bits they made up“. Hear, hear!

Another problem I have with historical fiction is that it almost always deals with historical events (and people) with which (and with whom) I am unfamiliar (and uninterested). A case in point was According to Queeney by the blessed Beryl Bainbridge, who sadly left us recently, and another example this year is Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America which is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Carey, along with Ian McEwan and Martin Amis will be amongst the bookies favourites on reputation alone, but David Mitchell is clearly the one to beat.

I feel bad being disappointed by what is clearly an excellent novel, with some rollicking dialogue, but I agree with what Trevor Berrett said on the Man Booker forum about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:

It’s good storytelling, but it’s really just storytelling. I wanted more. I have a hard time believing it can sustain three readings to win the prize.

I felt like that about AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book last year as well (and every Sarah Waters book for that matter). I want something more thought-provoking and preferably with a contemporary setting.

Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas, for example, would add some bite to the longlist. The knowledge that the author is a serving police officer in real life makes his portrayal of the breakdown of an armed response officer quite alarming. Much, much nearer Irvine Welsh’s Filth than Dixon of Dock Green, and another one of my books of the year. Trouble is, William Heinemann also publish Ray Robinson’s Forgetting Zoë and Tim Pears’ Landed – and they are only allowed to submit two. I have already stuck my neck out on twitter to say that Landed is a must for the shortlist. Reading it made me feel stupid for not having read any of Tim Pears’ earlier books. Inventive and beautiful, it captivated me, surprised me and then broke my heart.

Another edgy contemporary novel I would be pleased to see on the longlist is Contact by Jonathan Buckley in which a fifty-something businessman sees his contented middle-class existence threatened by the appearance of an uncouth and menacing young man claiming to be his son. It is as unsettling as Ian McEwan used to be and, indeed, has strong echoes of Enduring Love – which, of course, was controversially overlooked that year. (Those darn 1997 judges again.) I’ve jinxed Jonathan Buckley before though, so maybe I should keep stumm.

Another writer I have jinxed before, and therefore hesitate to mention, is Gerard Woodward, whose new book Nourishment is out later in the year. I know nothing about it except that, according to the blurb, it begins “with an act of unintentional cannibalism”. Can’t wait.

The longlist will be announced on July 27th, the shortlist follows on September 7th, and the prize will be awarded on October 12th (all Tuesdays)


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Troubles triumphs Man Booker Prize 2010 – The Longlist

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. KevinfromCanada  |  July 21, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    PJE: This is an amazing summary that I think perfectly summarizes this year’s Booker. I do think this is a year where the “names” have failed and while they make the longist, that won’t last.

    I would certainly look to the bottom third of your review (and I haven’t read them, but am getting ready to order them up) for likelky contenders. I would add a few others: Rachman’s The Impersonators (my favorite of the moment — time for a comic novel) and perhaps A Golden Mean on the historical novel front.


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