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?