Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Shortlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and Why Longlists Suck

The shortlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize was announced this morning. It includes two American writers for the first time, alongside two Brits (at time of writing - #bettertogether?) and an Australian:

Joshua Ferris - To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Viking)
Richard Flanagan - The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus)
Karen Joy Fowler - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent's Tail)
Howard Jacobson - J (Jonathan Cape)
Neel Mukherjee - The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
Ali Smith - How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)

It's a lighter list than might have been expected, shying away from some of the more difficult of the longlisted titles. Nothing there that couldn't be described as 'readable'.

One former chair of judges may not be impressed by it. There's no room on the list for Richard Powers, who John Sutherland calls "the most powerful novelist of ideas currently writing" in his entertaining new book How To Be Well Read. He certainly was not pleased by the (now traditional) snubbing of Martin Amis. "It's curious," Sutherland said in his review of The Zone of Interest in The Times, "to put it no more indignantly, that a Man Booker longlist that can find space for David Nicholls has chosen to overlook the most daring novelist of our time."

As usual the the favourite for the prize (David Mitchell) has been omitted. It would be more of a shock if, one year, the favourite did make it through to the shortlist. Perhaps the judges read Robert Collins' review of The Bone Clocks in The Spectator. He described it as a "merciless, roiling cauldron of third-rate fantasy poppycock."

Talking of poppycock, or rather gobbledegook, one of the shortlisted titles includes this jarring bit of pseudo-science:

"He spent most of my visit in his study, filling his personal blackboard with equations like_0¹=[0 0 1] and P[S1n+1] = (P(S1n)(1-e)q+P(S2n)(1-s)+P(S0n)cq. He barely ate. I'm not sure he slept."

I don't think that is any kind of equation, is it? And if it is, there is a bracket missing.

When writing A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking was warned by his publisher that  every equation in a book would halve sales. This does not bode well for the sales of this year's Booker nominees because, as those who have struggled through all thirteen books on the longlist will have noticed, equations pop up in a number of them.

Except that you won't have read all thirteen because they were not all available. Five of the thirteen titles had not been published at the time of the longlist announcement in July and, despite the rules stating that publishers are obliged to make a thousand copies available within ten days, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell only hit the shelves last week, and David Nicholls' Us won't be in the shops until the end of the month.

Twas probably ever thus - we just didn't know because the longlist used to be as secret as the list of titles entered for the prize. In those days it was not uncommon for the shortlist to include one or two titles that had only just been published. It was a symbiotic relationship, publicity-wise. Here it is: our star novelist's new book, and it has just been shortlisted for (or snubbed by!) the Booker judges.

I think that publishing the longlist in July has proved a mistake. Publishers are always going to schedule their literary heavyweights for September, and asking for publication dates to be brought forward into the summer holiday season is unrealistic. Worse, revealing the longlist in July has rendered the shortlist announcement in September a bit of an anti-climax. It's a genie that needs putting back in its bottle. Instead of a 'Man Booker Dozen', I would like to see the full list of titles considered by the judges revealed in the summer, with the big spotlight saved for the shortlist in September.*

In the controversy surrounding readability in 2011, an important point made by one of the judges went unnoticed. Several times Susan Hill reminded people that the task set for the judges was to find the best book of the year. No more, no less. They are not asked to pinpoint the six best books of the year, and certainly not the top thirteen.

Let's do the maths. As of this year, there are six judges (it used to be five). Even if they all have different ideas as to which is the best book, that still makes six contenders, tops. The rest of the longlist is, with all due respect, filler. It would be optimistic to assume that the jury assiduously try to pick the best dozen. More likely is that they happily indulge each others' preferences. This may explain the occasional whiff of croneyism over the years. ("Isn't he a friend of one the judges?") Longlists have also contained some odd choices, not least the autobiography of a monkey in 2009 (Me Cheeta).

The first time a longlist was made public was in 2001, and - oh boy - that really was a long list: two dozen titles ranging from the final instalment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to James Kelman's indecipherable Translated Accounts. It had Nick Hornby rubbing shoulders with VS Naipaul. The judges were, literally, all over the place. The shortlist they chose was excellent though.

And does being longlisted actually boost an author's career? Now there is an article waiting to be written. If I were a proper journalist that is definitely something I would investigate. Whatever happened to Zvi Jagendorf, Ciaran Carson and Patricia Grace since being longlisted in 2001? Whither Julia Darling, Barbara Gowdy, Gerard Donovan and John Murray from the 2003 list? Or Sam North, Justin Haythe and Lewis Desoto (2004)? Etc. Etc.

Keep September special. Scrap the longlist.

The winner of the £50,000 prize will be announced at The Guildhall, London, on Tuesday 14th October.

*Also, world peace and the moon on a stick please.

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At Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 5:35:00 PM GMT+1, Blogger Jenny Colvin said...

Practically all the books I got through didn't make the shortlist. I loved the Mitchell, the Powers, and the Hustvedt. I was glad the Williams and Kingsnorth didn't make the shortlist.

I feel like the judges are a bit narrow in their reading or backgrounds, based on their reaction to the Fowler, which I find to be a decent but not unique book. I, unlike the Booker judges, regularly read a lot of science fiction and fantasy.


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