Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Golden Man Booker Prize

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Booker Prize and as part of the celebrations The Booker Prize Foundation are awarding a 'Golden Man Booker Prize'. All of the previous 51 winning titles (there were joint winners in 1974 and 1992) will be reassessed to gauge which has best “stood the test of time, remaining relevant to readers today”.

Five judges will pick the best winner from each decade and their shortlist will be announced at the Hay Festival on May 26th. This 'Golden Five' will then be put to a public vote on the official Man Booker website and the winner announced during the Man Booker 50 Festival which takes place on the weekend of the 6th-8th July at London's Southbank Centre.

Of the five judges, the BBC Radio 2 broadcaster (and writer of teenage fiction) Simon Mayo has the easiest job: picking the best winner from the 2000s which, as we all know, is Wolf Hall. The poet Lemn Sissay will be considering the 1980s winners, which includes Salman Rushdie's Booker-of-Bookers champion Midnight's Children and my favourite winner The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The writer and editor Robert McCrum will consider the first twelve winners (1969-79), while poet Hollie McNish will choose from the eight most recent (since 2010). Novelist Kamila Shamsie might have the most awkward decision to make, as she will be revisiting the 1990s - the decade in which Booker judges failed even to shortlist all the most memorable titles (Regeneration, Birdsong, The Shipping News, Trainspotting, A Suitable Boy, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Bridget Jones's Diary, Enduring Love, etc.)

I think the big-hitters, the ones to beat, are probably:

In A Free State - VS Naipaul (1971)
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie (1981)
The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy (1997)
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (2009)
A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James (2015)

If it were up to me, rather than re-rewarding a previous winner, there would be a prize for the best runner-up. My 'Silver Five' would look like this:

Impossible Object - Nicholas Mosley (1969)
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood (1986)
Quarantine - Jim Crace (1997)
Unless - Carol Shields (2002)
Darkmans - Nicola Barker (2007)

Yes, I've cheated there, but I don't think anything from the 2010s would stand much chance in that company. And, obviously, in a public vote, The Handmaid's Tale would win by a landslide, so perhaps I should choose Flaubert's Parrot instead. Unless has one of the greatest first paragraphs I have ever read, and maybe if it had won the Booker, the whole #MeToo phenomenon might have happened years ago.

Before the Golden Booker though, there is the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize which will be announced on March 12th, followed by the shortlist one month later, and the winner on 22nd May.

The longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize itself will be revealed later in July, with this year's judges being philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (chair), alongside crime writer Val McDermid, graphic novelist Leanne Shapton and critics Leo Robson and Jacqueline Rose. As per usual the shortlist will be revealed in September, with the £50,000 prize winner revealed on October 16th. Add to My MSN Add to My Yahoo! Add to Google - Get paid to have your say
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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

George Saunders wins the 2017 Man Booker Prize

The £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 was awarded to George Saunders last night for his first full length goddamn novel Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury). A field geophysicist from Amarillo, Texas, who quit "swimming in [...] monkey shit [...] to try and be Kerouac II", Saunders has been well-known in America for twenty years thanks to his humorous (and often dystopic) short stories. Lincoln in the Bardo is the “Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”.

This means that the prize has been won by an American writer for the second successive year, only four years after the prize was opened up to writers from outside the Commonwealth. Interestingly, that decision to open up the prize was seen as being a response to the inauguration of the Folio Prize in 2014, which included Americans - and short-story collections. And who won that first Folio Prize? George Saunders for his short story collection Tenth of December. Of that book, Saunders told that at least three of the stories were intended to be novels, "until they came to their senses. That seems to be the definition of 'novel' for me: a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief."

Lincoln in the Bardo depicts the events of the night Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie died (February 22nd, 1862) in a genuinely innovative and, ultimately, moving way using quotations from historical works (some real, some fictional, some amusingly contradictory) and a myriad of spectral perspectives (apparently there are 166 different voices heard in the novel). Despite such a frightening-sounding conceit it is beautifully readable - as Saunders told The Guardian: "the writer doesn’t need to throw a party in every sentence". Although I disagree with the decision to open the prize to Americans, there is no doubt that the judges have picked the right book: it is a 'fittingly dazzling' winner.

For premature speculation about who the contenders for the 2018 prize might be keep an eye on:

And let's hope that Ali Smith isn't serious about not submitting her books for the prize in future. Add to My MSN Add to My Yahoo! Add to Google - Get paid to have your say
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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

2017 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The surprising shortist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize has been announced,  it looks like this:

Paul Auster - 4 3 2 1
Emily Fridlund - History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid - Exit West
Fiona Mozley - Elmet
George Saunders - Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith - Autumn

My favourite band are releasing a single next month, for the first time in many years. It makes me want to bang my head against a wall - not in a heavy metal way, but in a why-have-they-done-that-it-is-the-worst-song-on-the-album way. I suspect many people will feel the same about this shortlist, culled from what was probably the strongest Booker longlist ever. There will also be murmurs of 'told you so' with regard to it being 50% American.

I didn't make a prediction this year, but if I had it would probably have been the same as this one: - almost entirely wrong. It is as if the judges looked at the bookies' odds, and the predictions and preferences of bloggers, and shortlisted the least fancied ones. The exceptions being George Saunders' Lincoln In The Bardo and Ali Smith's Autumn.

George Saunders will now be the clear favourite. Lincoln In The Bardo is a typically kooky account of the night of Abraham Lincoln's son's death featuring the points of view of various (ex-)people in limbo. Truly novel, and much more readable than any attempts to describe it.

I read Ali Smith's Autumn when it came out last year, and I have to confess to remembering nothing about it. I do love Ali Smith's writing though so I will give it another read. I might re-read Exit West as well for the same reason, although I felt the surreal (magic realist?) device of doorways from one part of the world to another weakened it's impact. I preferred How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia.

Many column inches will be devoted to Fiona Mozley the "29-year-old" (one of the youngest people ever to be shortlisted) "bookshop worker" (she works in the Little Apple Bookshop on York) and "PhD student" (she is doing a doctorate on medieval English forests as 'forbidden landscapes' at the University of York). I am not surprised to see her make the shortlist. Elmet is a memorable debut with a terrific climax. On the other hand I was slightly baffled by the inclusion of Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves on the longlist, and absolutely astonished to see it reach the shortlist. Not a bad book, but why has it been chosen ahead of so many other brilliant ones?

This may not the shortlist anyone expected, and the omission of such strong (and other-award-winning novels) make it appear weaker than it might have been, but it includes three or four authors I really love, so I am not complaining. (Sorry, did it sound like I was? I have a touch of toothache, please blame any grouchiness on that.)

I say three or four because the jury is out on one of them. The only book on the shortlist I haven't finished yet is Paul Auster's magnum opus 4 3 2 1. It is compelling reading, but at times so detailed that I want to yell: 'stop trying to be Dickens!' Effectively four books in one - or three books and a novella, if you want a spoiler - it traces four possible life-paths of one character, the same age as the author. I have been taking a break from it, five hundred pages in, so still a long way to go. If the judges (author Sarah Hall, artist Tom Phillips, travel writer Colin Thubron, literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh and their chair: crossbench peer Baroness Lola Young) really have read it twice, and are going to read it a third time, they must really, really love it. Or they just really love reading, which is as it should be. Add to My MSN Add to My Yahoo! Add to Google - Get paid to have your say
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Friday, July 28, 2017

2017 Man Booker Prize Longlist - the strongest ever?

The longlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize was revealed yesterday, and what an impressive list it is:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

The judges this year are the novelist Sarah Hall, the artist Tom Phillips, the travel writer Colin Thubron, literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh and, in the chair, Baroness Lola Young, a crossbench peer. They considered 154 novels: 144 submissions and another ten that they called in.

They will surely have a difficult job whittling it down to a shortlist of six - I can't really complain about also-rans this year, can I? Their list pits some big-prize-winning novels against each other: the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Underground Railroad), the Goldsmiths Prize winner (Solar Bones), and the winner of the Walter Scott Prize and Costa Book of the Year (Days Without End).

Solar Bones consists of a single, two-hundred-page sentence, Home Fire is a contemporary reimagining of Sophocles' Antigone and the 880-page hardback edition of Paul Auster's 4321 weighs enough to kill a small child if it falls off a shelf. So it is a heavyweight list, and also very diverse - although Baroness Young claimed they only noticed that afterwards. A happenstance which has occurred almost every year since I began following the Booker in the early 1990's.

The only downside to such a strong list is that there are very few surprises - except perhaps the inclusion of a novel that isn't scheduled for publication until November (Elmet by Fiona Mozley) Did somebody move the goalposts?

The shortlist will be announced on September 13th, and the winner of the £50,000 prize on October 17th at the traditional posh bingo 'do' at London's Guildhall, which will be broadcast live on the BBC. Let's hope they don't blow the whole budget on a male presenter.

By the way, thanks to paddyjoe for pointing out that Helen Dunmore was longlisted once (in 2010). Occasionally I do think about checking my facts properly before I post, but then Donald Trump pops up on TV to remind me that facts don't matter any more anyway. Add to My MSN Add to My Yahoo! Add to Google - Get paid to have your say
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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Waiting For The Cut

Well, the cunctation had to stop sometime, so here I am again.

Since I last got round to posting we have lost some more fine writers, including David Storey who won for Saville in 1976 and Nicholas Mosley - who should have won the first Booker Prize in 1969 with Impossible Object - a piece of mind-bending meta-fiction that was way ahead of its time. (So far ahead that if it had been published this year it would be my favourite for the prize.) He also quit the judging panel in 1991 when the other judges refused to put Allan Massie’s The Sins of the Fathers on the shortlist, complaining that their choices lacked ideas.

Helen Dunmore also passed away, sadly this means that Birdcage Walk is no longer eligible, as the prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Although it probably makes no difference because, shockingly, she had never even been longlisted.

And - stop me if you have heard this before - A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize. He and translator Jessica Cohen sharing the £50,000 prize.

So, with the 2017 Man Booker longlist due on Thursday, it is time to dig out the old crystal ball. Except that we have barely the vaguest idea which 150 books the panel will have read, and judges have ventured so far off the beaten track in recent years, what's the point? So let me tell you what I would pick...

Mohsin Hamid (Exit West) and Ali Smith (Autumn) would be on my list. They are two of my favourite authors, and their latest novels did not disappoint but, to be honest, they haven't seared themselves on my memory.

I also had high hopes for Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, and I suspect it could be a strong contender judging by the positive critical reception, but I wish it had been called 'Reservoir 8'. Each of the thirteen chapters depicts a yearsworth of events in a village following a girl's disappearance, and it went on a few years too long for me.

I am currently enjoying Neel Mukherjee's A State of Freedom but, as Andrew Motion pointed out in his review in The Guardian, it does have a lot of "flabbily padded phrases". It reminds me of a comment my English teacher left on an essay many years ago: "Some very intelligent use of a Thesaurus" he said, probably sarcastically.

Arundhati Roy's long-awaited second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a strong contender, but I'm afraid I have grown weary from reading so many of these epic, formulaic, literary-genre novels. (Others from recent years that spring to mind include Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien and The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.)

Jaroslav Kalfar's debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia manages the rare feat of being both literary and science fiction, and is as good as many previous longlisted titles. It would definitely be on my list, as would A Natural by Ross Raisin, which is an excellent examination of what life might be like for a secretly gay young footballer in Britain today.

Talking of Britain today brings me to Anthony Cartwright's 'Brexit novel': The Cut. You may have heard of Ford Madox Ford's Page 99 test, where you read page 99 to gauge the quality of a book. The Cut passes that test with flying colours because pages 99-101 contain a bravura riff on tiredness that brilliantly captures the post-crash zero-hours struggle of many people in Brexit Britain:

He lies on the bed, tired, shouldn't be this tired. All of them the same. He hopes his mother has a sleep this afternoon. Tiredness has worked through everything, like the damp that warps the walls and the back fence and the wallpaper in the bathroom, has worked its way through the hills themselves, the undermining of the tunnels and great caverns that shift below them, slowly, not in human time, bent everything out of shape in the end. But the tiredness is human, that much is certain, and the damage done.
People are tired. Tired of clammed-up factory gates, but not even them any more, because look where they are working now, digging trenches to tat out the last of whatever metal was left. Tired of change, tired of the world passing by, tired of other people getting things that you and people like you had made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong. Tired of supermarket jobs and warehouse jobs and jobs guarding shopping centres. Work had always worn people out, the heat of the furnaces, the clang of the iron, but this is tiredness of a different order, tiredness that a rest will not cure, like a plague eating away at them all.

It's worth longlisting for that alone.

Also near the top of my longlist would be An English Guide to Birdwatching by a Nicholas Royle. I found it mind-boggling, very funny, and the most surprising novel I have read since Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles. But ask yourself whether you can trust the judgement of someone who, if asked to choose the judges for next year, would mischievously invite both Nicholas Royles?

Finally, the book I most want to see on the longlist is H(a)ppy by the incomparable Nicola Barker. I hope to read H(a)ppy in the next few weeks, and if I end up putting it off in order to read other stuff that the judges have longlisted then heaven help the other stuff. Add to My MSN Add to My Yahoo! Add to Google - Get paid to have your say
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