Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Long Booker

With yesterday's announcement of the Booker shortlist, along with Dame Stella Rimington's remarks about the judges looking for "readability", we have another strange metaphorphosis in the long history of our premiere literary prize. This is a prize that has been won by such "unreadable" novels as "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha", "The God of Small Things" and "Life of Pi". "Literary fiction", for want of a better word, is inevitably a very large church. It's one of the myths of the Booker that there's a certain kind of "Booker book." There are these books, and they occasionally make the shortlist, but they very rarely come within a sniff of winning.

I think its more interesting to look at Booker lists not in isolation but in a historical context. 12 years into the century can we make some assertions about "twenty first century" fiction or, indeed, the Booker itself? It remains, under Man's sponsorship, our leading literary prize, and though the Orange is still with us (and was developed in response to an all-male Booker shortlist) there's been no real attempt to usurp it (the Guardian's "Not the Booker" notwithstanding.) Its quirks remain. Commonwealth writers allows Booker to select from "everyone writing in English other than the Americans", and as a result likes to slip in some pseudo American books - for instance, on this years short list, two of the books are American novels in all but passport, from the Canadian authors Edugyan and DeWitt.

I'd say, rather than there being a "Booker book", there's several memes that the prize returns to. High class historical fiction has long been a mainstay, and remains both a triumph of the English language literary scene ("Sacred Hunger", "Wolf Hall", "Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet") and an annoying arm of the British nostalgia industry. On every shortlist, they've won less often than you'd imagine (only Mantel and Carey really fit this category this century.) Ever since Rushdie (and perhaps since Naipaul), the Indian subcontinent and its writers have enthralled Booker judges. Adiga and Desai (the younger) have won this century, yet the last 3 years is the longest period without a subcontinent writer since the mid-80s by my quick reckoning. Is this meaningful, or just a blip? Time will tell.

The 3rd meme is the midlist writer - beloved of Booker lists in the 70s and early 80s - we've recently seen Banville, Enright and Jacobsen take the bauble for mid- or late- career novels. I'd guess that in a year without a standout-standalone book its a safe choice. Hollinghurst, Mantel and Atwood could also be placed in that company, but each of their winners has been much acclaimed.

What I've noticed is that those word of mouth phenomenons "Life of Pi" or "The God of Small Things" phenomenon (a step-up in class or debut novel that goes viral) rarely wins the Booker - though those books sometimes get nominated ("Brick Lane" or "White Teeth"). More often those viral books happen outside of the Booker firmament - think "One Day" or "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" - but hardly need its imprimatur. Only one real "outlier" - DBC Pierre's "Vernon God Little" - won this century, and like John Berger's "G" or Keri Hume's "The Bone People", its one of those oddities that most competitions spew up now and then.

The first decade of the 21st century has not been the best of decades for the Booker. The absurdity of establishment rather than cultural establishment figures such as Dame Stella Rimington chairing the judges isn't likely to push the prize in a more radical direction - whatever the Blogosphere would hope for. More damagingly, I wonder what happens to those third and fourth books from ex-contenders. Magnus Mills was last shortlisted in 1998, Jon McGregor in 2002, Sarah Hall and David Mitchell in 2004, Costa winner A.L. Kennedy has never made a shortlist, Impac winner Nicola Barker has just one listing (albeit as recently as 2007 for "Darkmans"), Will Self follows Martin Amis in the "apparently too clever for the Booker" pile. I would think that these seven writers (and there are others) would feature heavily in any discussion of the British novel of the last 15 years. The Booker remains unassailably our top book prize, but this years list, despite its good points - heavy on debuts, independent novels, and both the historical and the contemporary - confirms that the prize offers a poor guide to what's really happening with the English-language novel, whilst being undoubtedly very Booker.

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