Sunday, October 14, 2012

Long Fiction in the 21st Century

On Tuesday the 13th Booker prize of the 21st century will be awarded. It could make history, with Hilary Mantel becoming the first British author to win it twice, and, moreover, with a sequel to her previous winner. Though books from trilogies have won in the past (Pat Barker, William Golding) two from the same series have never won. There are a number of new names on the list, including Alison Moore's "The Lighthouse", from my own small publisher Salt. It may well be that Moore, or another newish writer will prove to be more than famous for just one book (though the Booker has done that as well in the past: think DBC Pierre or Yann Martel).

If the Booker felt like a defining prize during much of the eighties and early nineties, I don't think it has been so central to the literary discussion since. A competition where essentially the rules change every year - because each set of judges is so different - is not a place to go for a defnining narrative. Like the Turner Prize or Mercury Prize it's position in the ecosystem of its artform has periods when it appears to so get it right, and others when it appears to so get it wrong. Two distinctly twentieth century novelists, Julian Barnes and Howard Jacobsen won the prize the last two years, with novels that are far below their best; whilst Mantel joined Anne Enright and John Banville in the list of respectable mid-listers who were elevated a little by their win. Elsewhere, books by Adiga and Desai, seem one offs that have less cultural import than the Martel and Pierre.

In other words, forgetting about the Booker for a minute - where are the culturally important fiction writers of the last 15 years or so? (Century boundaries not being very helpful.) David Peace, David Mitchell, Magnus Mills, A.L. Kennedy, Nicola Barker, Will Self, Sarah Hall, Ali Smith, Toby Litt, Gwendoline Riley and China Mieville would be a good starting eleven, yet they've notched up not a single Booker win, despite (at a quick count) 8 shortlistings between them. If we're talking books, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet", "Three to see the king", "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Day", "Wide Open", "The City and the City", "The Damned United",  "Cold Water", "The Carhullan Army" and "The Book of Dave" are important novels that any survey of the last decade or so would have to take into account and yet didn't make the shortlist.

Five of that first eleven did make the last Granta list of "Best Young British Novelists" in 2003 - but these decade long surveys are prone with difficulties - after all, Moore will be ineligible for the next list, despite "The Lighthouse" being a debut novel - and, should Will Self win with his first shortlisting "Umbrella", it will be a belated vindication (not that the writer of "The Book of Dave" and "The Quantity Theory of Insanity" needs any vindication) for his 1993 listing.

So, Tuesday's announcement will be interesting - the longlist (if not the shortlist) for this year's prize was certainly a more adventurous one - and good books such as Anne Enright's "The Gathering" or Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" have won the prize without necessarily being representative of the fiction of the age. The books of course aren't changed by the winning of a prize, they would have been there to read regardless; but obviously the winning writers future (and if its a small press, possibly their publishers' future) will inevitably be changed by the success. Let the anticipation commence....

1 comment:

john problem said...

It is interesting and curious to note that her sequel is not up to the excellent levels of the first.
And, as though the publisher recommended it, there is the now ubiquitous level of sex. But she will win - has already!