The 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction – Shortlist

Here it is then, the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize:

Paul Beatty – The Sellout (Oneworld)
Deborah Levy – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ottessa Moshfegh – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
David Szalay – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta)

Interestingly, the only three BME authors on the longlist now make up 50% of the shortlist, which is also 50-50 male-female. That gender divide feels very stark to me. As in the world of politics, the centre ground seems to have become uninhabitable – the favoured books are either extremely masculine or very feminist.

According to the chair of the judges, Dr. Amanda Foreman, “the final six reflect the centrality of the novel in modern culture”, which is news to me.

In moving from the longlist to this shortlist, the judges have eliminated seven books, including six of the eight-and-a-half that I have already read. Memo to self: ignore the longlist next year, you know you want to.

I didn’t get round to Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh which, from the reviews I saw, I assumed to be one of the also-rans. I also didn’t fancy His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet because books about historical murders combine two genres I am not keen on, and I fear it might be as tedious as Arthur & George.

It’s possible therefore that I might be blindsided by those, as I was with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings last year. It is also possible that the judges will be contentious enough to give the prize to a profanatory satire or a book of short stories, but I still think the choice is between Deborah Levy and Madeleine Thien.

The six shortlisted authors each receive £2,500 plus ‘a specially bound edition of their book’ (let’s hope they never have to flog that on eBay). The £50,000 winner will be announced at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday 25th October. Some of the ceremony will be broadcast one of the BBC’s lesser channels and there will be a special Man Booker Prize edition of Artsnight on BBC2 the previous Saturday.

As far as I know, there is no truth in the rumour that from 2017 coverage of the prize will be moving to Channel 4 as ‘The Great British Book Off’ presented by former autobiography-of-a-monkey-longlisting-Booker-judge Sue Perkins.


September 13, 2016 at 2:02 pm Leave a comment

Some thoughts on the 2016 Manhood Booker Prize longlist

I used the n-word a lot when I was fifteen. I had to: we were made to study The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for English Literature O-Level. Years later I was much amused to discover English literature students in America were being made to read How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman (the controversial 1994 Booker Prize winning f-fest about a blind drunk Glaswegian). I mention this because I suspect the n-word appears far more often in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout than in Huckleberry Finn. (Surely somewhere there is a proper journalist counting exactly how many times for a shock-horror-headline.)

Beatty is perfectly entitled to use the n-word but, surprisingly, it can be found in several other novels on the longlist. Presumably those authors believe that since they are writing historical fiction, and that is the sort of language their characters would have used, they are entitled too. I am not so sure.

I enjoyed The Sellout. I love satire. I suppose I am more of a cynic than a critic. I’m glad the judges introduced me to this book and I hope they shortlist it, but I don’t think it is quite funny enough or, bizarre as it may sound, angry enough to be truly great. And it would need to be truly great to win the prize, because it would be far and away the most controversial winner ever.

“Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits to another and fuck cause and effect, because there wasn’t none, and if there was we didn’t see much of it”, says a character in Hystopia by David Means, which is set in the Year of Hate. (That’s an American Year of Hate, rather than Brexit Britain 2016.)

Dripping with testosterone, life is too short for this massive pool of wank. When I reached page one hundred I felt I deserved a medal. Kurt Vonnegut has a lot to answer for. I would have voted for Donald Trump if he promised to make it stop. To think I could have been re-reading Catch-22 with the Guardian’s reading group.

The reviewer in The Guardian described Hystopia as “a novel that uses extreme violence as the hook to keep you reading.” They could have said the same about The North Water by Ian McGuire – a book that is more of an Ice Station Zebra-wannabe than the new Moby Dick. The type of historical adventure that pings the Booker radar every few years – eg The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, English Passengers, Jamrach’s Menagerie etc. – only nastier. The sort of book ‘shitwick’ Brexit voters in Ian McGuire’s hometown of Hull, wallowing in the gory good-old-days where political correctness has no jurisdiction, and you can call a spade a spade, will enjoy.

At one point we are told that: “the most important questions are the ones we can’t hope to answer with words. Words are like toys: they amuse and educate us for a time, but when we come to manhood, we should give them up.”

Oh, manhood. Put it away.

Wyl Menmuir’s The Many is the most hallucinatory novel I’ve read since Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr and could add some creepy colour to the shortlist. The meaning of the title is a puzzle to many. I wonder if it is a coincidence that ‘man’ is most of the title? Because the most astonishing thing about The Many, is how womany it isn’t. Orphan protagonists are a common trope in children’s fiction because it is convenient for authors to get the parents out of the way, regrettably many male authors seem to adopt the same tactic with regard to female characters. At the end of The Many, I found the absence of Timothy’s wife astounding – it begs a whole ‘nother story.

A story of women sidelined or missing altogether in book after book. In 2016. Anyone thinking of applying The Bechdel Test to this longlist needn’t bother. This is a man’s man’s Man Booker Prize. If The Baileys Prize didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it. And I haven’t even mentioned David Szalay’s All That Man Is yet!

“Sometimes I worry about my attitude to women” one of Szalay’s believably awful male characters says at one point – or was it the author, talking to himself? I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that All That Man Is is a knowing critique of 21st century manhood.

There are female characters in J.M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus but – spoiler alert – sometimes men do very bad things to women in his novels.


So, having read have about eight and a half of the books on the longlist, have I changed my mind about the rash prediction I made in my last post, where I tipped Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing as the winner? No, but I did underestimate Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.

Deborah Levy is a terrific writer: unsettling; mystifying. According to Ron Charles in  The Washington Post, “the seductive pleasure of Levy’s prose stems from its layered brilliance.” That explains that then.

The title alone deserves a prize. Two common words – how can they not have been put together as a title before? Isn’t there a wrongness about hot milk? Surely milk is usually either cold or warm? I remember reading somewhere about a literature professor who spent a whole lecture unpacking and dissecting the first sentence of Great Expectations. There’s probably a whole lecture to be had about the title Hot Milk.

The bookies are probably right to make it the favourite. This year’s judges seem to have been drawn to wooziness, and it matches The Schooldays of Jesus and The Many for that without drifting too far into the Twilight Zone. I wasn’t convinced by the ending, but I am convinced that Deborah Levy will win the Booker Prize sooner or later.

September 12, 2016 at 1:57 pm Leave a comment

Do Not Say You Were Not Told

Me again, sorry. I know, I know, nothing for six months then three blog posts in a fortnight – I should show more respect for the maintenance of headway.

I just want to clarify something. Last week, my instincts were that the longlist featured so many “also-rans” (books that aren’t remotely likely to win) because the judges already knew what their winner was going to be. I just failed to see what that winner was. I wondered whether it might be JM Coetzee’s new novel – an unknown quantity not due to be published until September (now brought forward to August 18th), but while looking deeper into the list, everything fell into place.

One book ticks all the boxes, rings all the right bells, and sparks like a firecracker: the subject matter, the excellent reviews, and the brilliant style exhibited by an extract which reminded me of The Last Samurai (superficially at least, but you know how it is with blogging – any excuse to plug one of your favourite books). A book I didn’t think I was interested in, which I am now excited about.

So I want to make it clear that Madeleine Thien is not an also-ran. In fact I will go to the foot of our stairs if Do Not Say We Have Nothing doesn’t win. I haven’t been this convinced about a potential Booker winner since Wolf Hall in 2009.

Something else I see in my crystal ball is the Bookies whining about rumours and betting patterns as more and more people read it, as happened with Wolf Hall. Earlier today the silly sods at Paddy Power were offering the silly odds of 25-1 – although those odds have now shrunk a little.

You can read the first chapter at the Granta website:

August 3, 2016 at 1:30 pm Leave a comment

2016 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize has been announced, and I’m sure the internet has ruined the Booker Prize. The judges clearly see all our speculations and expectations and swerve them. My first instinct was that the list looked a bit bloody, white, and American:


Paul Beatty – The Sellout (Oneworld)

J.M. Coetzee – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)

A.L. Kennedy – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)

Deborah Levy – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ian McGuire – The North Water (Scribner)

David Means – Hystopia (Faber & Faber)

Wyl Menmuir – The Many (Salt)

Ottessa Moshfegh – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

Virginia Reeves – Work Like Any Other (Scribner)

Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)

David Szalay – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta)


Five are American writers, who would not have been eligible for the prize before the rules were changed two years ago. Six are published by Penguin Random House (as you may have noticed if you received their newsletter). Nothing at all from Africa or Asia. The gender balance is even enough, but then would any Booker jury dare pick a mostly male longlist these days?

Still, maybe we shouldn’t make the mistake of feeding the list through simplistic “diversity algorithms” as Sam Leith laments in The Spectator. Maybe we should count the bodies instead?

A triple murder was the inspiration behind His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, and Ian McGuire’s The North Water sounds violent, cruel and bloody. Justine Jordan in The Guardian describes it as “so brilliantly nasty, one can barely tear one’s eyes from the page.” A description that reminds me of the last two winners: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

I get the impression that brutal, abusive men, and the damage they wreak on the world, might be a common denominator of a number of these books. Maybe that is just the way of the world. Still.

Masculinity is certainly at the heart of David Szalay’s All That Man Is. Some have questioned whether the nine separate segments, each focussing on a different man, constitutes a novel; but challenging the form of the novel should be part of the remit of a literary prize – and, as I have said before, the first Booker Prize in 1969 ought to have been won by Nicholas Mosley with a novel consisting of short stories. John Self was impressed by All That Man Is, and I’m sure that one day he will tell us how impressed he was by Impossible Object. Elizabeth Strout also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 with a “novel-in-stories” (Olive Kitteridge), and she makes the longlist with the minimalist  My Name Is Lucy Barton, which will be the first longlisted title I read, almost as soon as I stop prattling on here.

The view from the bookface seems to be that this could be the most wide open Booker field ever, but just to be curmudgeonly about it (sorry, you will have to excuse me, I’m in a bad mood as my laptop crashed yesterday) this list reminds me of 2011 – not because of its “readability” – but because I see a lot of also-rans.

I had a hunch back then that the wide open longlist full of unknowns left the way clear for Julian Barnes, who was far and away the biggest name on the longlist, and this time around I’m wondering if the same applies to JM Coetzee.

Coetzee would figure highly in any list of the world’s greatest living writers (even when no-one is quite sure who, or what, he is writing about) so if The Schooldays of Jesus is anywhere close to his best work he could be heading for a Booker hat-trick. Although Booker judges love to be unpredictable, and do usually drop the favourite at the shortlist stage…

Barnes’ himself missed out this year, and I wonder whether that is because The Noise of Time was eclipsed by Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which has a similarly highbrow mix of 20th-century communist politics and classical music.

Apart from Coetzee, the only other nominee to have been longlisted before is Deborah Levy with her “hypnotic” “dreamscape” of a novel Hot Milk. I’m sure people don’t mean to imply that it is sleep-inducing. (Although comparisons to Virginia Woolf don’t help.)

I was pleasantly surprised to see AL Kennedy finally make the longlist with her eighth novel, Serious Sweet, and pleasantly stunned to see David Means’ Hystopia there – I left it off my list of contenders because I thought it sounded too far-fetched for the Booker. Previously known for writing short-stories, Hystopia is Means’ first novel and is one of four debuts on this list – the other ‘unknown unknowns’ being Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and The Many by Wyl Menmuir: whereof I must be silent.

If most of the longlist are also-rans, then they sound like very interesting ones. Not least The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which has been compared to Martin Amis – inevitable for a satirical novel whose protagonist has the surname Me. On reflection I am far more intrigued than disappointed by this list and I am going to assume that the omission of Megan Bradbury’s Everyone Is Watching was down to it not being among the 155 novels submitted to the judges: historian Amanda Foreman, actor Olivia Williams, author Abdulrazak Gurnah, writer and academic Jon Day, and the poet David Harsent.

The shortlist, which I rashly predict to be Coetzee, Levy, McGuire, Strout, Szalay, and Thien, will be announced on Tuesday 13th September. The £50,000 winner will be revealed at the traditional posh do in London’s Guildhall on Tuesday 25th October.

Now let’s all go to and play with their Booker Predictor…


July 28, 2016 at 1:53 pm Leave a comment

Many are read, few are chosen.

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:

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

Vegetarian Takes The Cake

The Man Booker International Prize for 2016 has been awarded to South Korean author Han Kang for her novel The Vegetarian. Translator Deborah Smith shares the £50,000 prize.

Originally published as three separate stories, The Vegetarian tells the story of a young woman who chooses to live like a plant as a way of rejecting the violence inherent in human nature, and was the unanimous choice of the six judges.

51ZXUyJQSiL Vegetarian-design-Tom-Darracott

The brilliant shortlist this year was perhaps a good illustration of why translated literary fiction now outsells literary fiction written in English in the UK.

Meanwhile, the longlist for the ordinary (ornery?) UK Man Booker Prize 2016 will be revealed on July 27th, with the shortlist following on September 13th and the winner announced on October 25th.

There are at least nine former winners with novels out this year: Aravind Adiga, Julian Barnes, JM Coetzee, Howard Jacobson, James Kelman, Thomas Keneally, Yann Martel, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift. Yes, they are all men, but never fear, there are plenty of strong female contenders too – please peruse and vote for your favourites on the (far-from-exhaustive) list of eligible titles on goodreads:

May 17, 2016 at 1:41 pm Leave a comment

2016 Man Booker International Prize shortlist

After reading 155 novels constituting “the finest fiction in translation” the judges of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize have settled on this shortlist:

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) – A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)
Translator: Daniel Hahn

Elena Ferrante (Italy) – The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)
Translator: Ann Goldstein

Han Kang (South Korea) – The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)
Translator: Deborah Smith

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) – A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)
Translator: Ekin Oklap

Robert Seethaler (Austria) – A Whole Life (Picador)
Translator: Charlotte Collins

Yan Lianke (China) – The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)
Translator: Carlos Rojas

The shortlisted authors and translators receive £1,000 each.

The winner of the £50,000 prize (shared equally by the author and the translator) will be announced at a dinner in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum on May 16th. The big question is will ‘Elena Ferrante’ – the resolutely pseudonymous Italian author – show up?


I would like to take this opportunity to add my condolences to the family and friends of Kevin Peterson a.k.a. KevinfromCanada, one of the best literary bloggers and commentators, who died last month. Canadian literature has lost a great champion.

April 14, 2016 at 1:47 pm Leave a comment

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