KfC’s IMPAC thoughts

Having now completed my reading of the 2010 IMPAC shortlist, I’ll indulge in some critical thoughts and even a hesitant prediction. Those who know my record in literary predictions outside Canada (where I actually have a pretty good record) will realize that this is most likely to produce sure losers, rather than probable winners. Still, I’ve read the books (and reviewed all but two — Trevor and dovegreyreader do a better job than I could on those ones). You can find links to reviews in the sidebar over here >>>>>>. And before we start, a reminder that entries in KfC’s 2010 IMPAC contest remain open until June 16, so by all means join the contest. Full details are here — you can submit an entry on that post or this one.

As noted in that post, the IMPAC is an odd duck in the literary contest world. Nominations come from libraries around the world (which I think is a good thing because it reflects reader judgment) and are restricted to English language books or books published in English translation in 2008. On the positive side, that means the novels have been reader-tested; on the negative side, it means they risk being a bit shopworn or have been overlooked.

I would offer the observation that IMPAC juries seem to relish this oddness and respond with some offbeat picks, as though they appreciate the chance to draw attention to books that have fallen through the cracks. Consider the last five winners:

2009 — Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas — a post-modern American novel that attracted a few favorable reviews but not many. And one of the rare books that I abandoned (I warned you about my contest record).
2008 –De Niro’s Game, by Rawi Hage — a Canadian novel that did not go very far in national competitions here. I was lukewarm about it .
2007 — Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian. A book that I would never read had it not been an IMPAC winner and a book that I very much liked — some readers did find it slow.
2006 — The Master, by Colm Toibin. In the IMPAC world, this is the oddball winner because it is the most conventional novel of these five and the only one written by a “name” author. A very, very good book.
2005 — The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. An American novel about slavery that I have not read — I’ll confess that I have read as many of those novels as I think I am up to. It does have a good critical reputation.

So, with that recent history in mind, how does the 2010 shortlist stack up? I’d start by breaking it down into three categories.

There are three “American” novels: Home by Marilynne Robinson, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and The Believers by Zoe Heller (I know she’s English, but it is set in New York). Home is probably the most accomplished of the three and won last year’s Orange Prize. It provokes some highly varied responses — many readers love it with a passion, others (including me) have no taste for it at all. It would be The Master on this year’s list and I’m guessing the jury will decide it has already won enough prizes. Of the other two, Netherland has attracted more attention, but no significant prizes: The Believers has tended to pass unnoticed, despite Heller’s reputation. If the winner comes from these three, I’d guess Netherland — and that would be my choice as well.

Then there are three translated novels: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (from the French); The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker (from the Dutch) and Settlement, by Christoph Hein (from the German). The Barbery is an international success story and a book club favorite — I suspect too light to win this prize. I liked both the Bakker and the Hein — my choice would be Settlement and I suspect it would be the jury’s as well. It is an excellent book and the subject matter (the complications of re-unifying Germany) is both timely and worthwhile.

And there are two UK books: In Zodiac Light by Robert Edric and Ross Raisin’s Out Backwards (God’s Own Country in the UK.) Edric is a prolific novelist whose work shows up periodically in competitions — I think this book is the weakest of the eight (which means you can mark it down as a sure winner). Settlement was a wonderful discovery for me. Hein has a substantial European reputation but this was his first book that I have read; I will be reading others. Settlement is a major achievement.

My personal choice would be Settlement, with Netherland a close second. I thought all eight of these shortlist books were worthwhile reads; only Settlement moved into the exceptional category.

As for the jury choice, I’m guessing that they will come down to Hein or Raisin — there have been enough North American winners in the last few years that I am predicting that they will be passed by. Having confessed my preference for Settlement, that would be my prediction but I would not be surprised to see God’s Own Country as the winner — it is a more than competent first novel and has much to recommend it. And, as a longshot choice, I would throw Netherland into the mix.

And I am not entering my own contest, so all of the above is drivel as far as that is concerned.

KfC's choice

KfC's jury alternate

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10 Responses to “KfC’s IMPAC thoughts”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Excellent post on your thoughts, Kevin. I have enjoyed your reviews, but it was very interesting to have them all here at once to play off of each other, to see the strengths and weaknesses in relief.

    I still haven’t read Home. I’m planning on doing it soon. I loved Gilead and it is quickly becoming my favorite American novel of the last decade. After Home came out I kept thinking I needed to wait a bit so my opinion of Gilead wouldn’t interfere. That isn’t working well since Gilead just keeps on growing in my esteem, to the point where I want to reread it more than I want to read Home. We’ll see.

    As for the others, your recommendation alone is temptation for Settlement, but I think I might skip the others I haven’t read. I have the Barberry, but I didn’t finish the much shorter The Gourmet and think I’d end up picking up on every little thing I didn’t like rather than give it a chance. Not too fair, I know, but experience says it’s realistic. Oh well.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I did have a good time reading the shortlist, even if a couple did fall somewhat short of the mark (and I enjoyed reading it last year as well). IMPAC’s great strength is that it is a reader-driven contest rather than critics, other authors, academics, television personalities and so on.

    I can understand why Hedgehog is popular with some readers, even if it wasn’t one of my favorites. If you didn’t like Barbery’s other book, I don’t think this would be one for you. Settlement, on the other hand, would be very much to your tastes, I think.

    My impression is that most people who liked Gilead also liked Home. And those who didn’t like one or the other have no desire to read the second — since they are both versions of the same set of events, from different points of view. So take that as being completely neutral on whether pressing ahead or a reread would be the best course of action. I find that when I want to reread a book, it is best if I go ahead and do that — you end up making unfair comparisons because you aren’t reading the book that you most want to read.

  3. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I enjoyed this post immensely. Netherland did, of course, win the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, but, as you say, no major prizes. I thought it was excellent, but have not read any other contender. Given you also liked Netherland and I know our tastes do tend to mesh fairly well, your high praise for Settlement is going to put that on my list. I am now hoping it wins (but I am sticking with my original The Twin pick for the contest). This enthusiasm because a win means I definitely will read it sooner rather than later. Otherwise, there is the ever-present possibility that it will languish on the TBR for some time. (See, e.g., The Incident Report…but I will read it!)

    Anyway, thanks for the great coverage. I really enjoy your coverage of contests.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kerry. I certainly enjoyed The Twin as well and would not be disappointed if it did win. Thanks also for the reminder of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Netherland, which I had forgotten about.

  5. Kinna Says:

    Kevin, the post is wonderful. I also think Settlement might win. I’ve really enjoyed some of their past winners, notably The Known World and The Master, two very magnificent novels. Thanks for running the competition and for presenting your thoughts. I will be reading Home this coming week.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Kinna. It will be an interesting decision from the judges — the novels are so diverse that it is hard to predict how a jury could even make a decision. Which, of course, is why literary competitions are so much fun.

  7. whisperinggums Says:

    Thanks too Kevin — great post. I haven’t read any of these so can’t really comment BUT Settlement sounds like a good find so I’ll look out for it, regardless of whether it wins or not. 20th century Germany is fascinating – and so something dealing (well) with it is appealing to me.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Consider yourself entered, wg. And good luck, since you picked my favorite.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      Thanks KfC … I’ll keep my fingers crossed but won’t hold my breath! (A propos of nothing really, except that it’s set in Germany being it was reunified, but did you see “The lives of others” – wonderful film about the impact of secrecy/spying in East Germany before the wall fell).

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