Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The good, the bad, and the dead wood

On reflection, I thought I ought to write a more positive post about the longlist. I mean, why was the reaction to this year's Man Booker longlist so negative? There is nothing wrong with the big-hitters at the 'top end' of the list: Barnes, Barry and Hollinghurst. Nor is Jamrach's Menagerie out of place - that's a terrific yarn with a tiger and a shipwrecked boy whose companions eat each other - what could be more Bookery than that? The 'minnows' at the bottom - Jane Rogers, Patrick McGuinness and Yvette Edwards (no relation) - are welcome too. Being introduced to interesting books from small publishers and new or neglected authors is a valuable part of the Man Booker prize.

That was the plan anyway, but then in the middle of one of the books, I just got angry. In no way, I thought to myself, is this as good as Chinaman. Did Shehan Karunatilaka make a mistake by writing a book set in the Sri Lanka he knows rather than being the eighty-seven-millionth writer to imagine what life was like under Nazism or Communism? I'm so tired of books that use those eras as handy, off-the-peg, dramatic backdrops for their stories.

"Not the best Halocaust book I've read" (sic) was how one reader's review of Far To Go began, and the blurb: "When Czechoslovakia relinquishes the Sudetenland to Hitler..." just made me groan. There are Nazis in the background of Half Blood Blues as well, while Snowdrops is set in Moscow.

In future I would like to see no more than one politico on the judging panel.

As David Sexton pointed out in the Evening Standard, the choice of judges always makes the Booker "a bit of a toss-up". Or indeed a punch-up. Inevitably, the literary human centipede continues to grow ever more legs as Philip Hensher, whose latest novel King of the Badgers didn't make the longlist, this week took a sideswipe at the "atrociously bad" "faltering" thrillers written by Dame Stella Rimington, who is chairing the judges this year.

He also pointed out that four of the five judges have written thrillers, and about a third of the longlist could be considered thrillers. (Although only if by 'thriller' you mean 'has a plot' and takes place against a background of mild jeopardy.) The thrust of his complaint being that, like flying ants, thrillers seem to be everybloodywhere you look nowadays. He also took up the cause of science fiction. "The liveliness and extravagance of current genre writing in fantasy and science fiction, such as China Miéville’s remarkable novels," he said, "make the field a much more plausible candidate for literary exaltation than the rule-bound thriller."

Yes, but doesn't China Miéville’s reputation rest on his earlier novels rather than his more recent output? From what I've read of Embassytown so far, it doesn't seem any more remarkable than, say, most of Iain M. Banks 'Culture' novels.

Anyway, on the new-weird front, the judges may have found some gold in them there hills. According to one review, The Sisters Brothers "contains perhaps literature’s funniest overweight narrator on horseback," which suggests Eli Sisters could be another Ignatius J Reilly - or (dare I say it?) another Vernon God Little. Could a Western win the Booker? Over one judge's goddamn dead body I suspect. (Pistols at dawn, eh, Susan? Nice clue!)

The judges will announce the shortlist on September 6th, and choose their winner on October 18th, well after high noon.

As is now traditional, the Guardian are giving everyone that isn't happy with the Man Booker longlist the chance to be unhappy all over again with their Not The Booker Prize. I nominated Chapman's Odyssey, and I hope I won't be the only one to vote for it, but I fear the rule changes this year will merely play into the hands of those authors with an ebullient online fanbase.

Finally you might like to know that BBC Radio 4 are serialising Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending next week. It's the fourth of the longlisted titles to be broadcast so far this year - following Snowdrops, Pigeon English and Half Blood Blues - making Book at Bedtime the best predictor of this year's longlist. Not that I am suggesting any of the judges may have listened to some of these books on the iPlayer rather than reading them. Who could even think such a thing?


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At Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 9:57:00 PM GMT+1, OpenID kevinfromcanada said...

Well, I thought Far to Go worked just fine, so maybe I am out of step.

On the other hand, I think your post identifies a "bias" to this year's jury (and they all have them, so that is not a judgment) that meant some very good books got overlooked.

You mention a few (and I haven't read Chinamen, but will): I would add Adam Mars-Jones, Linda Grant, Edward St.Aubyn and Anne Enright just for a start, and there are others.

I do think that 2011 is a year that has produced a lot of "good to very good" novels and no exceptional one -- great reading for those of us who follow it, but nothing jumps right to the top.

My own guess is that Hollinghurst gets left off the shortlist -- Barnes is iffy (the book, which I like a lot, is just too short) and I need to give Barry a second reading. The jury has already dumped five previous winners, so I expect that will continue.

My problem is that I can't see any novel on the rest of the list that stands out -- admitting that I have not yet read most of them.

At Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 3:16:00 AM GMT+1, Blogger PJE said...

I'll take your word about Far To Go, Kevin - I doubt that I will read that one.

I have read At Last, and I felt that was in a different league to everything else I've read this year. The idea that the thirteen longlisted books are 'better' is impossible to take seriously. The judges must have used some idiosyncratic criteria, or out-and-out politicking to choose them.

Also I've been re-reading Chapman's Odyssey tonight, in order to do a review for the Not the Booker Prize thing, and knowing they didn't love it makes me wonder whether they might be a rather soulless bunch.


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