Long Time, No Sit On Your Face

June 17, 2011 at 12:54 am Leave a comment

Oh dear. Months without a blog post. Naughty, naughty. What have I missed? Let’s see…

Beryl Bainbridge won the Man (How Patronising Is This) Booker Best of Beryl Prize for Master Georgie and Philip Roth won the International Man Booker Prize, prompting Carmen Calil to quit as a judge after being outvoted 2-1 by the blokes on the panel (Dr. Rick Gekoski and Justin Cartwright). Calil felt that Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe“. I sort of agree (apart from the sitting on your face thing). Rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly, Roth is on my list of one-track-mind writers who only seem to write books about American-heterosexual-sex-obsessed-men-having-sex-and-mid-life-crises-and-more-sex. Then last year’s winner Howard Jacobson weighed in against the Roth-denier (with whom he has some less-than-happy history) using more of his brilliant satirical wit than was apparent in The Finkler Question, and suggesting a Carmen Callil “Is He Sitting on Your Face” Prize.

Elsewhere, Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning novel The Blind Assassin became the first selection for an international book club on Twitter – a choice that wouldn’t impress another Booker-winner, VS Naipaul, who recently announced that he considered no female writer to be his equal. This provoked another Booker-winner, Keri Hulme, to call Naipaul a “misogynist prick”. “Many thousand women writers both outrank, and will out-survive, this slug,” she said. Hulme herself hasn’t published anything since winning the Booker in 1985 with The Bone People. She may still be waiting for us all to read it. Shame on us.

Sometimes though, when the judges and the winners queue up to shaft each other like this, I can’t help seeing the Booker Prize as a human centipede of controversy.

Meanwhile, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize, offering the unlikely possibility of Tea winning the Orange and Coffee winning the Booker – should The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon triumph. I think that’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t bet against another feline winner. If we count Richard Parker in Life of Pi, tigers have won the Booker three times so far. This year’s tiger features in Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch which I would love to see on the longlist next month. Here’s one quick excerpt that made me laugh:

“Watney Street was all market. It smelled of rotten fruit and vegetables, strong fish, the two massive meat barrels that stood three doors down outside the butcher’s, dismembered heads of pigs sticking snout upwards out of the tops. Nowhere near as bad as Bermondsey, which smelled of shit.”

Which brings me to the important question round these parts: what are the contenders for this year’s Man Booker Prize? The early favourites included yet another feline title: Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, which is due in August, along with Dermot Healy’s first novel for over a decade, appropriately entitled Long Time, No See.

Personally I will be very disappointed if the book I have most loved so far this year – Chapman’s Odyssey by Paul Bailey – doesn’t make the longlist, although I fear it may be too delicate to withstand the rough and tumble of the jury room – or me jinxing it.

I also loved Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman – a must read for any cricket lover. It’s a very funny debut novel riffing on the whole history of cricket and Sri Lanka. It reminded me of Steve Toltz’s debut A Fraction of the Whole, which was shortlisted in 2008. Its chances may hinge on whether the judges love or loathe the game. I’m not sure that a reader with no interest in cricket will appreciate the innumerable references to past cricketers both real and delusive.

Currently there seems to be a bandwagon rolling behind The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel since he won with The Line of Beauty seven years ago. There was a similar buzz around David Mitchell last year, of course.

Then there’s another former winner, Graham Swift, who recently chose to promote his powerful new contemporary novel Wish You Were Here, by asserting that “there is no such thing as the contemporary novel” because of the time they take to write. I think that’s just semantics. As far as I am concerned, if it’s set within my lifetime it’s contemporary.

A fair chance then that there will be a second-time winner this year – although Susan Hill, one of this year’s judges, suggested on Twitter that she thought there ought to be a rule preventing authors from winning more than once. I disagree. The prize would be slowly devalued as, year by year, more writers became excluded. Imagine a year in which a number of previous winners publish excellent novels which are all ineligible – how would the judges’ choice of “best book” look then?

Anyway, I have collated a pretty big list of possible contenders for this year’s prize which you can peruse, and even vote for your favourites, here:

http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/9854

and I’m grateful to Susan for confirming on the Man Booker forum that about 65 titles on there are included on the list of more than 140 being read by the judges. A few more possible entries have been added since then, so it’s about half-right. Of course Booker judges usually surprise us, so – despite Susan’s comment on Twitter that the judges are “totally sick of reading bad novels” – I suspect that when they announce their longlist (on July 26th) they will have found a few more obscure gems to commend to us.

It may all be completely pointless though, since TV drama series have replaced novels “as the best way of widely communicating ideas and stories” according to Sir Salman Rushdie. From which you may well surmise (correctly) that he has written a television series, and that watching DVD Box sets now counts as research…

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I spy with my little eye… Pistols at dawn?

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