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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