2011 Man Booker: Mid-longlist thoughts

The Man Booker forum now has dedicated threads on all 13 long-listed novels in their Winners Debate section (and I have a lot to go), but I thought I’d offer some early overall thoughts about this year’s jury and their selections. I think the 2011 competition is very, very different from all the ones that I have known since I began following the Prize many years ago and there is reason to be alert to it now. I have read only seven of the 13 so far, but that experience plus descriptions of the remaining six have led me to form this extended hypothesis. It is still only that, and subject to revision (or outright rejection – I won’t take it personally if your comment is “This is utter crap”) once I have read the remainder.

Genre fans have frequently complained that their favorites get overlooked when it comes to the Booker. Even as one who likes “literary” fiction (I won’t try to define it here, but by all means offer yours), I have to agree but I would argue that, until this year, the Booker has been a “literary” fiction prize — if your sci-fi favorite is to rate, it needs to have appropriate literary appeal. Genres have their own prizes, this is just the “literary” one. Its reputation is based on that – others have bigger monetary value (IMPAC), more tightly-defined mandates (Orange), bigger sales potential (Richard and Judy put this one to shame). For me, the Man Booker’s reputation for evaluating literary fiction has been justly earned – it should be wary of being “taken over” by other interests.

I think this year’s jury, deliberately or not, has quite a different view. I have always assumed, perhaps naively, that the Booker longlist represented the “13 Best Books” of the year – I don’t think that is the case this year at all. In fact, I would argue that this jury has consciously avoided any attempt to choose the 13 best books of the year. Rather, they have opted for the “dog show” approach (that may or may not be a perjorative) – let’s put together a longlist of “best in genre” (e.g. “best in breed”), narrow those to six and then proclaim the “best in show”.

Consider the list of 13 by genre (my labels are cumbersome but bear with me — or substitute your own):

Western – The Sisters Brothers
Victorian melodrama – Derby Day (note the absence of Gillespie and I)
Dystopian – The Testament of Jesse Lamb
Adolescent narrator – Pigeon English
Brit historic – The Stranger’s Child (Adam Mars-Jones didn’t make it)
Irish historic – On Canaan’s Side (too bad, Anne Enright)
Holocaust historic – Far To Go
Dreadful Communism historic – The Last 100 Days (The Free World did not measure up)
Post-Soviet (noir) historic – Snowdrop
Tangential, cultural historic – Half Blood Blues
Animals as metaphor – Jemrach’s Menagerie
Fictional memoir – The Sense of an Ending
Gritty modern London – A Cupboard Full of Coats (Graham Swift is too dreary, also not London)

(I have noted only some obvious exclusions because they are in genres that I read – you may well have your own in the others.)

My problem with this approach from the jury is that, being limited to 13, they have to overlook several classes or smash them into the limited literary ones available on their agenda, e.g. novels part of trilogies (Ghosh, Mars-Jones); “wide-screen” generation novels (Linda Grant); intense introspective personal novels (Swift); anything from Asia, Africa or the Carribean (The Chinamen) and I could go on. The jurors seem to like genres that have a lot of action and story, not those that look inward at society (Jane Austen would not have done well with this jury at all and Joyce would have had absolutely no chance). Not only that, when you select by genre, you invite historical comparison to good work in the genre – most of this year’s “best of breed” are sadly lacking when compared to the high previous standard. And finally, as a couple of others have observed, this approach has resulted in a very, very middle-class, English approach to evaluating fiction – and I would argue the Man Booker is not well served by that restrictive view.

The Guardian for a few years has had the Not the Booker Prize. I’d suggest that this year, the official jury is giving us a “Not The Literary Novel” Prize (even though they have included a few and one of those might well win). It is an interesting approach – and certainly allows for people to cheer on the genre novel of their preference in the final (Snowdrop and Pigeon English, two I don’t much like, already have their advocates and more power to them). I won’t denounce the jury for its approach but I would ask: Given that literary novels don’t have their own prize (except for the Man Booker), why are we turning it into a “best of genre” award? Why not call it the “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” award, this year in honor of the 75th anniversary of Orwell’s novel – a celebration of middle-class values that once were? Why does literary fiction have to take a back seat?

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51 Responses to “2011 Man Booker: Mid-longlist thoughts”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Interesting thoughts, Kevin. I haven’t read enough of the books to offer up my own, but one of the books I read was Snowdrops. From that, I know that you’re certainly on to something here. I’m only about 50 pages in, and completely enjoying it, but I’d also give you this on what I’ve got so far from The Sisters Brothers (despite that I am really enjoying that novel).

    I would say that I feel good that Far to Go is on the list. Despite the portions that are “conventional,” I think Pick is playing with that deliberately, making the end product quite unique as well as one of the more emotionally powerful novels I’ve read in a while (partially a product, as you know, of the fact I have my own children of that same age).

    I’ve still got a few left before I sit back and wait for the shortlist, so I wonder how 2011’ll square away in the end.

  2. rickp Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Although I read your blog all year long, I usually start commenting at Booker time. I’m actually now more interested in the list after your comments. Obviously not because you’ve made positive comments but because you’ve noted how different the list is.

    I read 11 last year and expect to do about the same this year though I’m slow off the mark.

    I expect to begin tomorrow as I am on vacation and pickup some of my order then.

    While on vacation, I read Austerlitz as I noted you compared it to Far To Go. A lot of people love Austerlitz. I liked pieces of it a lot but found it to be hard work without quite enough payoff for the work.

    Back to Booker. At midpoint, what’s your favourite so far. From the reviews, I’d guess the Barnes. I’ll commnet as I proceed through the list.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I don’t necessarily think this is a bad way of approaching the Booker challenge — and indeed when the jury is reading 170+ novels it may be the only way. And I do agree that it (or at least this list) introduces us to books that we might not otherwise read. I did not waste my time when I was reading either Snowdrop or The Sisters Brothers — but then I am disappointed that the jury did not see value in Cedilla or We Had It So Good, both more challenging reads, but with a far more rewarding result from my point of view.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    rickp: I know you always return for prize season, so welcome back.

    Here’s my “hunters’ open season” prediction: The Giller list will be better than the Booker list.

    Just tuck that away and let’s return to a discussion in November when the prizes are done. Get this boring Booker reading out of the way on your August holiday and saddle up for a wonderful September. Okay, I am pushing that a bit but I reall do believe this year’s Giller will blow the Booker away.

    The Booker is not a bad list, it is just a different list. If you haven’t started and intend to read quite a few, I would suggest spending some time by ranking according to both your interests and curiosity — this is a genre-based list and if you hate the genre leave it off. If you don’t know it but are curious, bump it up the list. And if it is one that you know and don’t generally like, put some more challenging books agound it.

    And stay tuned for the Giller update. Yes, there is going to be a 2011 Shadow Giller. Yes, we have a jury expansion. Yes, it will be better than the Booker.

    • RickP Says:

      You mentioned that the Giller Prize will have a stronger short list. I think the Giller juries have recently done a good job with lists (though I didn’t care for The Sentimentalists).

      Giller juries recently have a much higher proportion of writers of literary fiction. Margaret Atwood, Colm Toibin, Andrew O’Hagan, Annabel Lyon, Russell Banks and Alistair Macleod are examples in just the past few years.

      Do you think Booker suffers because of the makeup of their recent juries sees this segment not well represented?

  5. Sr. Judge Mary Bacon Says:

    Kevin, down here in Texas my annual scavenger hunt for the ManBooker longlist is part of the fun. This year’s hunt, and it may have to do with the lack of universality that you may be discussing, is the most difficult.
    So far I have four. Alibris sent my money back on the McGuinness. Even though Snowdrops is available on Kindle, I can’t get my interest up. I am as disappointed as you are that We Had It So Good didn’t make it. And I’ll never read a book about a dragon on a ship, even if it is metaphorical.

    Mary Bacon

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Sr. Judge Mary Bacon: I can’t help but observe.

      We have had a Shadow Giller Jury for as many years as the Giller exists. In keeping with the Official Jury, we have added some international judges to the Shadow Giller in recent years. This year, we have one from New Jersey, one from London.

      A Texas judge would be interesting, if yoy meet our standards, of course. Might you be interested?

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Judge Mary Bacon (Oh, how I love typing that title — I do hope you love The Sisters Brothers when you get to it):

    This year’s scavenger hunt produces a lot of road-kill and not much of the un-damaged fawn variety (venison is venison, whatever some might say).

    Here is the trick with ordering titles not available in the US.

    The best source in the UK used to be the Book Depository (free shipping — but they do include a charge in price). But they got shut out when Amazon.com started buying Kindle rights and shut down the BD’s right to ship books on titles that were Kindle available in the U.s. Also, Amazon bought AbeBooks (a Canadian-firm) which specializes in used books, but also is an outlet to new firms.

    Anyhow, setting aside the bizarre corporate arrangements (surely some American judge — Texas? — would address them, if only someone would bring suit), if you go to AbeBooks.com and type in the book you want and then scan down to the Book Depository option, nothing has changed. I ordered eight two weeks ago — the last arrived by post today — all at competitive prices.

    Please do post a comment on the Linda Grant — that is the only way that we can get it to the top of the comment pile.

  7. John Self Says:

    Very interesting thoughts, Kevin. I have been conspicuously (or perhaps inconspicuously) absent from Booker discussions this year, mainly because I haven’t read many eligible titles and haven’t much interest in reading the longlist. I think I have reached that point, which every blogger must get to from time to time, where my reaction to yet more new books arriving is somewhere between allergy and phobia and I long to get down to some older stuff which has stood the test of time. (Jiri Weil and Elizabeth Bowen being my latest reads.)

    Of the Booker longlist, I’ve read two-and-a-half. I very much liked Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending, thought Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English was OK, and as you know, I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) finish Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. From the comments I’ve read on the Booker forum and elsewhere, it seems that the two remaining titles with most praise are The Sisters Brothers and Jamrach’s Menagerie, though I must admit neither appeals to me personally. I take my hat off to those like you who continue to do the rest of us a service by taking on them all.

    I wonder if I might propose an alternative to your theory of how the jury found its list this year. Could it be that they have been actively seeking to promote the under-rated and unknown? As well as debuts, they have a few books by well-established writers who have never attained high readership (Jane Rogers, DJ Taylor and Carol Birch). It is entirely true, as you and others on the Booker forum say, that the judges cannot really believe all these titles to exceed Cedilla for example or any of the other prominent losers you identify. It’s worth noting that they are asked not to list their favourite books, but what they believe to be the best books of the year. That is not an insignificant distinction, and one which any keen reader should be able to understand. It could be, therefore, that many of the well established and successful writers on the submissions list this year (and there were plenty of them, thanks to the extension of the previously-shortlisted rule) were consciously not given any serious consideration. It would certainly be one way of shortening the list of books the judges have to give detailed consideration too.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      On Canaan’s Side is getting praise by most who have read it. It’s my current favourite.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Colette: On Canaan’s Side has only been out for a week (and won’t be out in North America for another month) so most comments so far have been restricted to those with access to an advance copy. I’d suggest that is one reason why it hasn’t been getting as much attention as some other titles.

        • Colette Jones Says:

          I don’t get advance copies. It’s been out in the UK since early August. I read The Sisters Brothers before this one and didn’t have it before the longlist, so it’s certainly been out long enough over here.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I don’t think your thoughts and my hypothesis conflict at all — perhaps I am guilty of imposing a structure on your more random thoughts, but if we take that as descriptive rather than prespective, I don’t think you and I disagree at all.

    (On a grumpy note, I would add that modernists — whom I think I could say you quite like and I am a little more hesitant about — are light years away from getting on this jury’s list. I doubt that Lars Iyers Spurious got a mention in the longlist discussion.)

    I do think this jury wanted to promote their version of the “under-rated and unknown” as you define it and that the longlist reflects that. My argument (I am being an academic here) is that that became reflected in a promotion of genre-based works — the jury might not have started out that way, but that is where they ended up. What I would offer in support of that argument is that the longlist does not contain two versions of any “genre”, except perhaps pre-War fiction.

    I do agree with the sentiment in your last paragraph concerning the idea of “best” books when it comes to this jury. I could accept “favorite” or “most overlooked” or a number of other descriptions — this is not a jury that that makes a distinction.

  9. PJE Says:

    I think you may be in the vicinity of the truth, Kevin.

    Obviously it is very difficult to determine which is best out of several very different books, so I’ve always suspected that when judges choose the longlist/shortlist they probably end up pitting ‘similar’ books against each other and eliminate the weaker ones. (Similar perhaps in theme, style, setting, or some other quality.) After all if you have two similar books and one of them is clearly preferred, then the other cannot win. However, this could mean that books are eliminated too early. The most likely example of this that springs to mind was the year Vernon God Little won and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was ‘snubbed’ – probably because the judges felt that they couldn’t have two books narrated by children on the shortlist.

    Also, since each judge will probably have one favourite (unless they are a bit indecisive, or a bit underwhelmed by them all) there are, at most, only five books that could win. This leaves more than half the longlist to fill with anything they fancy. So, like John said, this year they appear to have leant towards promoting books or authors they feel deserve more recognition.

    By the way, your list of ‘genres’ highlights the thing that disappoints me about the longlist, which is the lack of humour.

  10. Kerry Says:

    You have me hooked on the Barnes. That is a must-read for me. Beyond that, this post confirms my worst prejudices against the shortlist. I now have a reason, and a good one, not to be excited about the rest.

    On the positive side, stealing from John Self, it does give me a bit of an excuse to keep on with less current material for more classics. That’s more the mood I am in at the moment anyway. Well, that and Canadian fiction…..I have been working my way too slowly through your excellent suggestions, but my goal is to get through (most) of them by Giller time.

    And I am excited about the changes you have hinted at for your Giller coverage. Possibly the best lit-award coverage of the year, for my money.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    pje: “in the vicinity of truth” is as close as I ever get, so thank you for the compliment.

    I think that your analysis of the way that the jury thinks is completely correct. My own version is that even when they meet to choose the longlist, they know the top four — not just that, there is pretty much agreement on the next four.
    As for the final five, who cares? They won’t be on the shortlist anyway.

  12. farmlanebooks Says:

    I’d agree with you. I’ve been disappointed by the list so far. Even those I’ve enjoyed reading haven’t had what I’d call “literary merit”. The Sisters Brothers was an entertaining read and may well be the best Western of the year, but i don’t think it has the depth or underlying symbolism to justify its inclusion on the Booker list.

    I was very disappointed in Jessie Lamb – if they think that is the best Dystopian published this year then I don’t think there were many others in their pile of 150 books. :-(

    I don’t have a problem with genre books being included on the list, but they need to have literary credentials and the long list seems to be lacking in them. :-(

  13. David Says:

    Whilst I don’t think the judges have picked the best of breeds from several genres, I do agree with your last comment, Kevin. I reckon the judges already pretty much know the shortlist – Susan Hill (she of the misquoting semi-rants) said prior to their meeting about the longlist that “It seems likely that over half the books will choose themselves, but that there will be a bit of bargaining over 4 or 5″. Fair to say then that those last 4 or 5 are there to make up the numbers, and are therefore (as you and John both say) simply included to promote authors and books who the judges like and feel are overlooked.
    I don’t think it is a bad longlist. I think it’s a slightly odd one and seems (though I’m wary of saying so without reading them all) to have quite a few pretty average books on it. It’s not a longlist that has had me rushing out to buy a load of books as the longlists once did. I had 5 of them already, two of which I’d read. The Barnes I would have bought anyway. The only one I’ve bought because of the list is the Alison Pick. I don’t really have a great deal of interest in the others – maybe if I’m missing one or two when the shortlist is announced I’ll get them. I started taking an interest in the Booker in 1995 and for many years I made an effort to read as many of the shortlist (and later, longlist) as I could and it introduced me to some wonderful books that might otherwise have passed me by and that really were among the year’s best, even if the judges have always missed one or two that I thought should have been there! But of recent years (2009 being the exception) I find myself being constantly baffled by the choices.
    I find the pre-longlist speculation much more interesting, when people are talking about all the good (and bad!) eligible books they’ve read – that really does introduce me to things I’d be sorry to have missed. When it gets to the longlist stage I now follow it more out of curiosity than anything else.
    I’m approaching the end of the Jane Rogers at the moment – a book I’d bought months ago and had been looking forward to reading – and that really does disprove your best of breed theory. It surely can’t be the best sci-fi/dystopia/speculative fiction book published this year. Every year the sci-fi fans bemoan the absence of China Mieville or Ian McDonald from the longlist. Well, this year they must be really annoyed to be represented by this distinctly average book. Just reading the first few pages of Julie Myerson’s “Then” and Naomi Wood’s “The Godless Boys” (two other speculative fictions from mainstream publishers) suggest they are far better written if nothing else. Of course, they might not have been submitted, I know. Anyway, I don’t often make notes about books as I’m reading, but I’ve filled two notebook pages with things I don’t like about this book and written two lines on things I do like. It’s not spectacularly awful, but its presence on the longlist doesn’t fill me with confidence.

    Re: the Giller. You’ve got me very excited now. Every time I go on Amazon.ca (just to look, seldom to buy) I come across another book I really want to read. There certainly look like there could be some great contenders.

  14. Mary Gilbert Says:

    A few years ago Richard and Judy had some really interesting and challenging books on their shortlist including Cloud Atlas and then gradually their choices became more and more fluffy. Is not the same thing happening to the Booker? I love your genre classification Kevin – nothing wrong with a good western or a thriller in my opinion but in the past I’ve looked to the Booker for really stimulating and challenging fiction. Like David I often tried to read all the books on the short list but now I no longer do that prefering the blogs to inspire my reading. Probably the term dumbing down is a little extreme but certainly the Booker has lost credibility as a significant forum for great fiction. OK Wolf Hall was a tour de force – didn’t enjoy it personally – but when was the last time there were six books of distinction on the shortlist?

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thanks for the thoughtful comment — I too find that the pre-longlist discussion alerts me to many good books that I would otherwise overlook and that the “surprises” on the longlist tend to be bad, not good. Curiosity (and the fact that I have the time to read) does keep me reading them all, but this year has been a bit of a challenge. On the Giller front, check out their website — somebody has produced a program that lists all the possible eligible books alphabetically by author.

    Jackie: I’ve been disappointed so far this year, but part of that is my own fault — I’ve been holding off on the books that I hope to like and reading the ones I don’t expect to (which meant that The Sisters Brothers was a very pleasant surprise).

    Mary: I do think the Booker has lost some of its cachet and I have some sympathy for the judges, even if I do take shots at them — as much as I love fiction and reading, I would ot sign up to read 170+ books chosen by someone else in less than seven months.

    • David Says:

      Thanks for pointing me in the direction of that list on the Giller website, Kevin – it made for an enjoyable hour’s browsing last night. Some of the books I was already aware of (I’m especially looking forward to the new ones by Guy Vanderhaeghe and Frances Itani, and – to a lesser extent – Wayne Johnston, all authors I’ve read before) but there were also lots that I had never heard of. Frances Greenslade, Brian Francis, Nicole Lundrigan, Steven Price and Emma Ruby-Sachs were all new names to me, but all of their novels look very promising indeed.
      Anyway, as a result of my browsing I bought Tessa McWatt’s ‘Vital Signs’ (sounds really good) and Suzette Mayr’s ‘Monoceros’ (read the first chapter on Amazon and was hooked) as well as the new David Adams Richards which I’ve been meaning to get for a while.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        David: I have the Vanderhaeghe (it is my “most looked forward to” title of the fall) and Johnston. Also an ARC of the new Maria Endicott. You’ve done better research than I have on lesser known names — Mayr and McWatt are the only ones of whom I have heard. We will be running a Shadow Giller Jury again this year — I should be posting on our plans in a week or two.

  16. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    In thinking about this post, I realized that the Booker-jury has done (sort of) what I was thinking maybe the Rooster-folks should do. I was thinking they should have eight (or 16, to pull in a number of genres) seeds set aside for various award-winners (or near winners, like how they tend to have at least one Booker shortlister each year, but specifically do that) and then fill the other half with under-appreciated books followers might not notice otherwise. I think that could work for a tournament, like the ToB, that is explicitly not based on crowning the best literary book of the year.

    The Booker is a different animal entirely (or should be, says me) and I don’t like the genre/slot format (even a de facto version of it) for what is, and should remain, one of the most prestigious literary awards. From a distant observers’ perspective, it looks like the Booker might be trying to be more “fun”, but at the expense of literary relevance. I don’t like that (but then, I wish the ToB tried harder to include more literary protein rather than pushing the boundaries of readable).

    I will be watching the remainder of Booker coverage (here and elsewhere) with curiosity, if not salivation, however.

    Go Barnes!

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I see your point, Kerry, but I don’t think it would work for the ToB either. The problem with genres is that some people just don’t like some — so if you made me read a dystopian novel against anything else, I’d take the anything else. And I also think it is fair to say that “genre fans” are often so passionate about their choice that they won’t look beyond it. What this approach does do for the Booker, I admit, is produce some very good arguments — reconciling some who loves The Sisters Brothers with someone who loves The Stranger’s Child is not an easy task at all.

  18. Lee Monks Says:

    I’ve had a look at most of these now in varying levels of scrutiny. The Barnes is far, far, far and away the best of the ones I’ve looked at. Not even the Rimington/Hill flunkeys on the panel could’ve avoided that.

    On your genre classifications, there is probably something to that suggestion although I can’t help feeling that the panel simply has little idea what it’s doing and that you are introducing method to a bit of a crapshoot.

  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I didn’t comment on your brief thoughts in the Sisters’ piece Kevin as I saw you’d written this.

    It’s an interesting hypothesis. Admittedly I haven’t read anything on this list as yet (and won’t read most of it), but it seems profoundly middlebrow. I don’t think genre should be relevant to the Booker. It should be a prize for the best literary novels of the year, some of which may also happen to be genre novels but that’s not why they’re picked.

    This doesn’t feel like we’re in that territory. As you note modernist writers wouldn’t have a hope here. I like modernist writing much more I think than you do, and I expect vastly more than this jury does, but it shouldn’t be about what one likes but about what is best and as John notes those aren’t at all the same thing.

    I suspect your classifications weren’t in the jury’s mind. My guess would be more that it’s a jury for whom plot and pace matter more than prose (gosh that’s alliterative) and the selection reflects that. Genre tends to be better at plot and prose than literary fiction.

    The Booker though is the main prize for literary fiction. I’m very happy defending the merits of SF and have done at mine more than once, but that doesn’t mean it should be wedged in here. SF has the Arthur C Clarke award (among others).

    For me the point of a prize is for an educated jury to inform potential readers of great books they might otherwise miss. When the Arthur C Clarke award went to Lauren Beukes as someone with an interest in SF I paid attention. It said that an educated jury knowledgeable in SF thought that she had written the best SF book of the year. That’s a big deal.

    The Booker should do the same for literary fiction. If it doesn’t what’s the point of it?

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I was mentally composing a reply to you when Max’s comment arrived, saying pretty much exactly what I wanted to say. I don’t think the jury started out with a list of categories. I do think they started out with a set of tastes and a preference for “plot and pace” (I like that, Max) which happened to produce a list that can be easily categorized because they did some preliminary sorting along the way (bringing forward only one example in each type). Some of those categories — Western, dystopian, Victorian mystery — are recognized genres in my mind — obviously, I had to stretch for some definitions when I was getting to the end of the list, but I do think all of these books are subject to some pretty obvious categorization. The point being, of course, the categories that got ignored and the very good books that got overlooked.

    Max’s statement about the Booker being the prize for literary fiction is dead on. Actually, I think this post serves to illustrate the problem the Booker faces. I still participate in the forum (although I don’t think that will last much longer), so I repeated this post over there. The reaction here has been thoughtful and well-argued (virtually all from people who don’t participate in the Booker forum, even if they once did) — the response over there is an argument that Victorian mystery is not a genre. Having lost its focus, the Prize has also lost its audience.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      Kevin, I’m a bit shocked at this. Are you saying that people on the Booker forum who don’t agree with your genre theory (I do not) are not thinking about it properly and are not making good arguments? People who have read, in general, more of the Booker longlist “over there” somehow have a lesser opionion than those who respond to your blog on a regular basis?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Colette: The point I was trying to make is that I think the Prize has lost focus and as a result also lost audience. I think the declining participation in the forum is a reflection of that. I did not mean to reflect on the quality of participation (and appreciate that comment can be read that way — it was not what I intended), rather the quite dramatic drop in the number of people who are participating.

        • Colette Jones Says:

          I’m not sure there are less. There are certainly some new faces, and some, sadly, who have stopped posting (come back JS). It will be more clear when we start tallying which books people support as I will then have it on a spreadsheet. I can’t find the prior years at the moment and need to go to work but there was one very low year.

          • Colette Jones Says:

            Found it! For shortlist voting (not every member, but a good indication of commitment to the forum):
            2007 – 26 people
            2008 – 14 people
            2009 – 16 people
            2010 – 19 people

            • KevinfromCanada Says:

              Thanks — you anticipated my request for this tally since I know you are the only one (including the organizers) who knows how to do it. Perhaps my impression is wrong (and I’d be heartened if it is) — the 2008 figure does surprise me.

  21. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    KfC:

    Yours is an interesting perspective. It seems to me that juries quite often stray from their mandates to do something else with the prize – eg, encourage young writers, illuminate particular themes that resonate because of the times, etc, and that really is the good fortune, or the misfortune of the authors to be included in a particular years’ crop. If you think about the Nobel peace prize, there have been many years when the selection has been to make a political point, and not a reward for peacekeepinging in the world. And dont even get me started on the Academy Awards! Juries are subjective – sometimes it works sometimes is doesn’t.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sheila: I certainly agree — if you go back to Max’s comment, I think this year’s jury may well be guilty of “hi-jacking” the prize. Certainly, there are some very good novels on the longlist (and some not good ones) and it is far too early to jump to a conclusion. I have my favorites (with still half the list to read) — and half the fun of the Prize is indulging in speculation along the way. I think many of the comments here in response to my post attest to the attention that some very literate readers devote to the project, even if they don’t intend to read all, many or any of the novels.

  23. Lee Monks Says:

    I would absolutely love to know, Kevin, if you’re right here. Maybe we will find out? I think both your and Max’s response covered it perfectly there: they’ve gone for ‘thumping good reads’ over any kind of literary yardstick. And if they have, that’s not what the award should be about. I personally believe that Martyn Goff (if it is still he) should’ve sacked them on the spot for the list they derived. And for failing to include Cedilla, amongst others. If I can shoehorn in a pretty ridiculous (though it almost works, bear with me) analogy, it’s akin to the FA appointing an unqualified person, bizarrely, to manage the England squad, only to watch in horror as Rooney, Terry, Cole, Hart, Gerrard and Wilshere are all left out.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: Okay, here is another crazy idea that people can disagree with. Under the new rules, which produce an entry list of more than 170, I think the Booker virtually ensures that the jury won’t be literary. No author or critic will join (Susan Hill pretty much admits she is retired as a critic) because it would mean giving up creative life for seven or eight months. No one in the trade will either — because there would be no time left for work. And I would suggest that even a “serious reader” — if they went looking for one — would respectfully decline the invitation because he or she would know how challenging the task is. (Can you imagine committing to reading 170 books, chosen by someone else, in seven months?). The result is a jury that doesn’t have very many experienced readers (since they would know the task is not possible) — so no surprise that it produces a list of “thumping good reads”.

    There are good reads out there this year. For me, the best thing about the Booker is the forum which keeps going all year. And no doubt the best thing about the forum is that participants there have alerted me to many titles that are deserving of the longlist.

  25. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin, on that thought I consider myself a “serious reader”, but I don’t read nearly as many as 170 books in a year. Even were I to give up work that would be a meaningful task.

    To do it for books I hadn’t chosen myself, many of which I would no doubt dislike or much worse consider unmeritorious, wouldn’t have the faintest appeal. Frankly even reading the longlist doesn’t appeal which is why I don’t join in on that each year.

    You make an excellent point. Who could engage meaningfully in such a challenge? That said, do they actually read them all in full? Surely some (many) are skimmed and swiftly discarded with then only a much smaller proportion actually being read in full, and a smaller set still being read more than once as the choices narrow.

  26. Lee Monks Says:

    It all makes troubling sense…

    Cue doughty, resilient bloggers to arrest the decline by putting themselves forward!!

    Or employ five experts for a four-year term, for example. Though the rules will have to be vastly changed – there must be a better way of doing things. Perhaps a ‘feeder’ system whereby independent members, possibly bloggers (why not?) push a handful of books the way of a central panel. Thus filtering out the dross, by and large, and accumulating a formiddable (and must smaller) list from which to select a winner.

  27. Lee Monks Says:

    Max: I guarantee many are skimmed. The whole thing, at that number, is preposterous.

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’m not in the paid workforce and 100-110 books is about what I read in a year — the issue isn’t time, it is that mental fatigue sets in after that.

    A good friend used to do a lot of live radio interviews with authors (his show ran three hours a day, five days a week) and he did have a routine — read the first 20 pages, a chunk from the middle and the last 10 — more if the book interested him. He wasn’t doing “review” intereviews, they were much more part of the promotional tour so he felt no guilt about not reading the entire book.

    I suspect judges have a similar system that allows for sampling of a book and setting it aside so due time can be spent on “worthy” volumes. I’d also guess the chair puts in place a rota system that ensures every entry gets fully read by two judges who “act” on behalf of the whole (and perhaps say “this should be read”).

    I do think this is what produces the phenomenon of one judge being very passionate about a book and thus getting it on to the longlist, even if the others aren’t too impressed.

    Having said that, I do think the entire longlist gets fully read by every judge — and that a significant amount of second reading takes place after the shortlist is announced.

  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I suspect that an informal feeder system is in place. Another friend, who was a Giller Prize judge one year (the entry number there is much smaller — about 90 — but the time window is also somewhat tighter), recruited a “panel” of reading friends (I was one) who helped out. The judge kept the obvious must-read ones for himself and parceled the less obvious ones out to three friends whose opinions he trusted. He got back advice ranging from “you can ignore it” to “has potential” to “must read”. In the highly unlikely event that I was a Booker or Giller judge, I’m pretty sure I would invent some version of that. I’d rather read 40 novels thoroughly then try to read 170 not well at all.

    What is strange about the Booker is that they did have a very workable feeder system — the publishing companies. Restricting entries to two per publisher, adding a score or so of automatic entries for recent shortlisters and opening the window for eight to 12 call-ins by the jury produced a list of about 130. That’s still big, but I would argue the quantum leap from 130 to 170 (which this year’s rule changes did) changes the whole game. At 130, some good readers will “take one for the side” as it were and sacrifice the better part of a reading year to “do their bit”. Bump the number to 170 (which also means your fellow jurors likely don’t have much in common with you) and that is too much of a sacrifice to ask.

  30. Lee Monks Says:

    ‘formidable’ and ‘much’ were what I intended there, anyway…

    Ah, interesting stuff. Well, it does make sense. These things are not set in stone so you’d hope for a bit of a change. 170 is ridiculous by any measure.

  31. Sr. Judge Mary Bacon Says:

    Kevin, I loved your comment about possibly serving as judge on the Shadow Giller and clumping the Texas me with “The Other”, London and New Jersey. I feel closer to Canada than to New Jersey.

    Being a judge in a criminal court as I was, before retirement, helps me empathize with the judges on the Giller and the Booker and all the other prizes. To help me I had a law school education, the United States Constitution, the Texas Constitution, a well-thumbed Penal Code, modified every year, and hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that had arisen under these laws.You have to follow the law; there is little discretion, other than in balancing justice and compassion in sentencing, sometimes. I asked a wise old judge about that. “Oh, hon, you’re on your own there.” So you make a decision, and a lot of people who did not have to make it stand back and criticize.

    For Giller and Booker judges, even shadow, it’s harder. Imagine not making the decision on your own, but with several other people. Each is as sure of himself as I am, with no laws that we all recognize. The NYTimes this morning describes a theory that a “tight-knit, smart and well-informed group can suppress dissent and make disastrous decisions because of the pressure to agree.”

    Empathize, yes. But disagree? Yes. Linda Grant, We Had It So Good, should have been on the longlist. It’s on my “Lifetime Best.” I’m hesitating here, because I’m in the middle of reading a different one, a “Lifetime Worst”, and I don’t want to do other than ask readers to go easy on judges. We mean well. MB

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Judge Mary: Thank you for that thoughtful look at “the judging” and the pressures that judges face. That theory from the NY Times is hardly encouraging. Margaret Atwood, who has had a fair bit of judging experiences, has observed that five-person judges produce compromise, while three-person ones reward risks. Not sure that I totally agree, but I’d suggest some of the Giller results tend to support the argument.

  32. Lars Iyer Says:

    Hi Kevin, On the subject of the Not the Booker Prize, I wonder if you would consider voting for Spurious, which you generously reviewed a while back. You could cut and paste something from your review if you feel the book deserves it …

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/data/book/literary-fiction/9781935554288/spurious

    With best wishes,
    Lars

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Lars: I haven’t decided yet whether to vote — and then I’d have to make a choice from a very long longlist, including Spurious, of Not the Booker candidates (the Official Jury seems to want a lot of possibilities in the Not the Booker). But I figured the least that I could is leave the link up for other visitors here who want to vote.

  33. Gavin Says:

    Kevin, this post and the comments have been quite helpful and I would like to link it to a couple of brief reviews I’ve combined in a short post (Snowdrops and A Cupboard Full of Coats). I wish I could get my hands on some of those CanLit 2011 books!

  34. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gavin: I am not sure where you are but the issue of buying Canadian titles has been raised before. I actually did a post on it a couple years ago:

    http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/a-march-essay-buying-canadian-books/

    Basically, if you have five books that you want you can effectively reduce the shipping costs from either chapters.indigo.ca or amazon.ca to roughly the same as the online discounts that both offer — so you end up paying the cover price. It isn’t perfect but is an option. I will be reviewing the entire Giller longlist after it is announced (Sept. 6) and, as with the Booker, will be grumbling about some of the ones that I thought should have made it but did not.

    Don’t hesitate to ask if there are any you have questions about even if I haven’t reviewed them — I’ll let you know if I have heard or read anything.

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