Many are read, few are chosen.

July 25, 2016 at 9:39 pm Leave a comment

Did I mention that I don’t like the Man Booker Prize longlist? It means that instead of spending August reading books I hope the judges will choose, I spend it trying to get hold of the ones they did. It also means seven weeks less time to read some of the possible contenders, and that makes trying to predict which books will be on the longlist when it is announced on Wednesday (27th July) even more foolish, so please ignore any predictions I may accidentally make here.

I added as many possible contenders as I could to the list of eligible titles on Goodreads, which this year has ballooned to accommodate almost two hundred possibilities, but I have no doubt that the judges will descry a few more. There are a number of others that I couldn’t squeeze on, including several highly-recommended books whose publication date on Goodreads suggested they were not eligible. I think if I were a publisher, getting the correct information onto the internet would be quite high on my to-do-list. Apologies to any authors who have been overlooked. Feel free to console yourself by getting your book repeatedly nominated for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize by people who haven’t read it.

We live in increasingly interesting times, where dystopias feel far too close to home, giving science fiction tropes more leverage than they have had for decades, something Val McDermid explored in her Artsnight programme this week. Which brings me to the old bugbear of Booker judges bypassing books set in the future.

Take The Sunset Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan, which is set in the winter of 2020-21 – a date that, despite its imminence, still looks and sounds like one of Captain Kirk’s stardates to my generation. With characters coming to terms with cataclysmic climate change and transgender issues, it is a book of our times, and would sit nicely on a Booker shortlist.

I also enjoyed Ros Barber’s excellent Devotion, which had echoes of Brave New World, Enduring Love and – inevitably for a book set in the near-future whose protagonist is a paranoid, suicidal, psychiatrist – the works of JG Ballard (who, you will remember, only got shortlisted for the Booker when he wrote about the past in Empire of the Sun.) But I’m still not sure what to make of Aliya Whiteley’s small and perfectly odd The Arrival of MissivesA Month In The Country meets the new-weird?

Other futuristic or dystopian novels I am keen to read and would be delighted to see on the longlist include A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna, The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes, Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain, The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver, When The Floods Came by Clare Morrall and The Unseen World by Liz Moore. I am not holding my breath on their behalves though.

Booker juries are always more receptive to historical fiction, and this year there are a couple of North American century-spanning epics for them to consider: The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins – her first novel for over a decade – which was my tip for the prize until it received rather mixed reviews. I would expect one or both of them to be on the list.

Other 800+page gorillas that the judges may have tackled include Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire; and Louis Armand’s 888-page behemoth The Combinations, which has been described as “Kafka’s The Trial meets Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities” (possibly by the author himself for all I know); but not Alan Moore’s Jerusalem – which is published too late for this year’s prize.

In recent years Booker juries have tended to choose winners who are either very well-known (Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes) or very much unknown (Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga, Eleanor Catton, Richard Flanagan, Marlon James), so perhaps some Rumsfeldian Analysis is called for…

Known Knowns – well-received works by established writers

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday have both received citical acclaim making them strong favourites, and Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs also has a lot of admirers.

I would be surprised if Howard Jacobson isn’t on the longlist as per usual with his contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series Shylock Is My Name. It is full of his customary satirical wit – including the odd sentence that, if Jane Austen were alive, she would want returned.

Unknown Knowns – forthcoming works by established writers

New books are on the way from Ali Smith (Autumn), Jonathan Safran Foer (Here I Am) and previous winners Ian McEwan (Nutshell) and JM Coetzee (The Schooldays of Jesus).

Known Unknowns – Books by unknown writers with a buzz around them

“A novel without a single full stop, it is easily the most all-consuming and splendid sentence I have ever read” says Sara Baume of Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones; while the chapters of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier are narrated by inanimate objects and can be read in any order, “because that’s what it’s like to be blown up.” Both sound like strong contenders.

Winners of other prizes that are eligible for this year’s Booker include The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which won Pulitzer prize earlier this year and Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone – winner of the Goldsmith’s Prize for 2015. Chinelo Okparanta’s first novel Under the Udala Trees, won the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You seems to be this year’s nominee for “the Great Gay Novel for our times”. Two other debut novels I would not be surprised to see on the longlist are Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun.

And many, many more as the K-Tel advert used to say…

Unknown Unknowns – books we haven’t heard of by writers we don’t know

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

 

My sleepy eyes are struggling to read as many books as I would like these days, and I do not believe that I have read this year’s Booker winner yet – although I am hoping that will change when I finally get hold of The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker. And I will stick my neck out and predict that Megan Bradbury’s debut novel Everyone Is Watching ought to be on the shortlist. Art, love, and life dance through the pages of this “beautiful, kaleidoscopic imagining of the artists’ creation of New York“ (Eimear McBride). My fingers are crossed for both.

The judges for the prize are chaired by the historian Amanda Foreman, alongside actor Olivia Williams, author Abdulrazak Gurnah, writer and academic Jon Day, and the poet David Harsent.

Judges for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize have also been announced. In the chair is Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and he is joined by translator Daniel Hahn; authors Elif Shafak and Chika Unigwe and the poet Helen Mort. They can all be followed on Twitter… @nickbarleyedin @danielhahn02 @HelenMort @Elif_Safak & @chikaunigwe and, of course, there is a list for potential contenders at Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/95298

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