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 http://www.flipsnack.com/booker-prize/ 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: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/95298

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

Man Booker International Prize 2016 Longlist

The first longlist for the new style Man Booker International Prize has been announced, and in true Booker Prize tradition it includes a tiger:


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

Maylis de Kerangal (France) – Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)
Translator: Jessica Moore

Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia) – Man Tiger (Verso Books)
Translator: Labodalih Sembiring

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

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Congo/Austria) – Tram 83 (Jacaranda)
Translator: Roland Glasser

Raduan Nassar (Brazil) – A Cup of Rage (Penguin Modern Classics)
Translator: Stefan Tobler

Marie NDiaye (France) – Ladivine (Maclehose Press)
Translator: Jordan Stump

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) – Death by Water (Atlantic Books)
Translator: Deborah Boliner Boem

Aki Ollikainen (Finland) – White Hunger (Peirene Press)
Translators: Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah

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

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

The prize, which used to be for a body of work, was previously awarded to Ismail Kadare (in 2005), Chinua Achebe (2007), Alice Munro (2009), Philip Roth (2011), Lydia Davis (2013) and László Krasznahorkai (2015). It has now merged with The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and become an annual award for a single book (a novel or short stories) translated into English and published in the UK.

This year’s judges are chaired by Boyd Tonkin of The Independent. His four co-judges are the poet and author Ruth Padel; the novelist Tahmima Anam; Princeton University professor David Bellos; and Daniel Medin from the American University of Paris.

The shortlist of six books will be revealed on April 14th, with each of the shortlisted authors and translators receiving £1,000. 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.

March 10, 2016 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

Marlon James wins 2015 Man Brraper Prize

So, in the end there was no need for any more brute-force voting, the judges went out all guns blazing, and unanimously awarded the £50,000 Man Booker Prize to the “very exciting, very violent, full of swearing” A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Marlon James has become the first Jamaican-born winner. At 686 pages, A Brief History of Seven Killings is also one of the longest winners, continuing the trend towards hulking tomes – much to Salman Rushdie’s chagrin: “Just as I start writing short books, long books are in. My days of long books are over” he told The Telegraph last week.

“Someone said to me they like to give Booker winners to their mother to read, but this might be a little difficult” Michael Wood, chair of this year’s judges, admitted. Yes, but on the other hand it might be the perfect Christmas present for your Gangsta Granny. After hearing Nonesuch Book blogger Frances on The Readers’ Man Booker Podcast, and Sarah Churchwell on the BBC News channel coverage, both champion A Brief History of Seven Killings I was not surprised it won, it sounds like a literary box of fireworks.

So that’s Booker 2015 over. It’s been emotional.

Now let’s take a quick peek at 2016.

The longlist for the new-style Man Booker International Prize will be announced in March, the shortlist in April and the winner in May. There is already a list of possible candidates for that on goodreads, and I have just initiated the Man Booker Prize Eligible 2016 list there as well.

Big names vying to be snubbed in favour of “new voices and younger writers” next year include: Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, and maybe even the long-awaited sequel to A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. There may even be a bit of Cauliflower® in the Booker stew.

Now it’s time for this blog to go back into hibernation.


October 14, 2015 at 11:21 am Leave a comment


There’s no point me making any predictions here, because by the time anyone reads this post the result will have been announced. (I’m afraid I lack the wherewithal to keep up with technology and was unable to get online yesterday as the distant library computers I rely on were all down.) Anyway what do I know? As usual I only got round to reading half the shortlist – partly because I spent a lot of time wallowing in Iain Pears’ Arcadia instead. (Very enjoyable, like Narnia for grown-ups, and much better than The Bone Clocks.) I couldn’t fault The Fishermen – it deserves to be as widely read and successful as The Kite Runner, but The Year of the Runaways eluded me until last week, so I cannot offer an opinion as to whether the mystery punter known as ‘Mr Smith‘ will be in the money again this year. I suspect that those two are the sort of books that end up on the shortlist because everyone agrees they are excellent, but without them being the out-and-out favourite of any particular judge. Possible compromise choices if the other four all prove too divisive.

I couldn’t face A Brief History of Seven Killings, partly because of the small print (yes, I have reached that age) but mostly because it has been compared to James Ellroy and Quentin Tarantino. I remember one Christmas my local library (now an empty building) wrapped up some books and handed them out to customers as an extra, mystery loan. Trouble was, half of them were wrapped in blue paper and half in pink. It wasn’t hard to imagine the type of books each colour concealed. I realised then that any book that can be wrapped in blue or pink is of little interest to me. I can’t help wondering if this year the judging process has been a little fractious because, more than any previous year, the shortlist suggests a gender divide.

I suspect that Satin Island, for example, must have had the determined backing of one male-brained judge for it to get this far. It is interesting, but more semi-intellectual noodling than novel in my opinion – a slight, superficial addition to Tom McCarthy’s oeuvre. Although it does sit nicely on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize – the increasingly impressive rival to the Booker – which prizes originality: novelness, you might say. Their list also includes The Field of the Cloth of Gold – the latest inscrutable treasure from Magnus Mills, Acts of the Assassins by Richard Beard, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell, and Kevin Barry’s forthcoming Beatlebone.

Anyone wanting experimental fiction, and thinking Satin Island is it, ought to venture back to the very first year of the Booker Prize (1969) and seek out Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Object which should have won then, and would have walked onto the shortlist any year since. Two of the judges – including the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode – favoured it, but were “silenced.”

“I wanted to write you something impossible,” we are told at the end, “like a staircase climbing a spiral to come out where it started or a cube with a vertical line at the back overlapping a horizontal one in front. These cannot exist in three dimensions but can be drawn in two; by cutting out one dimension a fourth is created. The object is that life is impossible; one cuts out fabrication and creates reality.”

Is reality the impossible object of fiction? He asks. That’s way above my literary pay grade. (Which is zero.) I would like to refer you to a review by John_Self, but there doesn’t seem to be one. We should all pester him to write one.

I was also surprised that A Spool of Blue Thread made it to the shortlist. Indeed, on the day the longlist was announced I was planning to take it back to the library, unfinished, because I didn’t expect it to be on the list. It seemed to be a well-written, good-hearted family saga any well-meaning librarian could happily wrap in pink, rather than literary fiction. I wondered whether I might just as well visit Peyton Place. I think I had been expecting something more like Carol Shields who, sadly, never won the Booker Prize. She should have won in 2002 with Unless, but the judges that year chose a lesser Canadian writer: Yann Martel. Life of Pi, went on to become the biggest selling Booker Prize winner ever, and recently received a Presidential seal of approval from Barack Obama who read it with his daughter, describing it as “a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Nevertheless, the judges got it wrong. Unless, the last novel Shields wrote before succumbing to cancer, is a book every woman needs to read, and every man should be made to read. It also opens with the wisest first paragraph I have ever read:

“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.”

Talking of life…

Not since Owen Meany has a character in American fiction had such an emotional impact on readers as Jude St. Francis in A Little Life – perhaps the strongest favourite for the Booker Prize since Wolf Hall. It has split people like nothing since the death of Princess Diana. Perhaps for similar psychological reasons.

Many readers have been deeply affected by it, but some who felt obliged to read it because it was on the Booker shortlist seem to have read it through gritted teeth. (Colette_Jones on The Mookse and the Gripes forum suggested that A Little Life was likely to win because “if it didn’t annoy them the first and second times, they’re not going to notice problems on a third reading.” Ouch.)

Last year I said that longlists suck, and I am even more convinced this year. If the list of books entered for the prize were published instead of the longlist, no-one in their right mind would try and read all 150-plus novels. We would just read the ones that most appealed to us, rather than trying to plough through a dozen books chosen by a literary committee. No wonder some followers of the prize seem permanently disgruntled by the judges’ selections. In the end the judges are tasked with finding the best book of the year, everything else is gravy. So scrap the longlist and give us the list of submissions instead I say. (Don’t worry, I won’t hold my breath.)

I would be happy to see A Little Life win, but it isn’t the best candidate for the title of greatest American Novel I’ve read this year, or even for the title Great American Gay Novel (as it has been labelled) because back in January I read James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head (1979) – a book most people have never heard of (I certainly hadn’t) which is shameful. One of the all-time great novelists at the peak of his powers, as they say. Around the same time I heard Stephen Fry on the radio show Just A Minute attempting to list some Great American Novels. Disappointingly, he never got beyond dead white men. Which should remind us to give some kudos to the Booker Prize for promoting so much diverse, quality fiction for so many years.

October 13, 2015 at 1:24 pm Leave a comment

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