2014 Booker longlist and KfC’s plans

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booker logoFirst, the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)

The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)

The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)

Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)

Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)

How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Coverage of the annual Booker competition has been a feature of this blog since its inception in 2009 — if you scroll down the sidebar on the right you will find full long and short lists from the last five years, with links to my reviews. In the first few years, I managed to read every longlisted book. I gave up that completist chore a few years back (too many books that I knew going in would not interest me) but still have found that more than half the list interests me enough to read and review — and I’d say that will be the case this year.

For those who follow the Booker, the question awaiting the longlist this year was “how many Americans will be there?” — this being the first year that the prize is open to American citizens. The answer is four — Joshua Ferris, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Powers and Karen Jay Fowler. That is about the number that I would have expected but there is a side effect that I lament: Commonwealth writers have virtually disappeared from the list (Australian Richard Flanagan is the only representative). I’m sure I’m not the only Canadian who rues this development — particularly since the Americans are hardly unknown talents that we have never heard of before.

Indeed, I would say another side effect of the new rules is that debut writers have fallen by the Booker wayside. While longlists usually featured a couple — sometimes even more — there is nary a one on this year’s list. The U.K. vs U.S. duel is pretty much the only theme.

I have not read any of the 13 novels, but ordered six this morning and intend to get to them as quickly as possible: Ferris, Flanagan, Hustvedt, Powers, Williams and Mukherjee. As far as I can tell five of the 13 have not yet been released (Mitchell, Smith, O’Neill, Jacobson and Nicholls) — Mitchell, Smith and O’Neill would have been on my list to read even without the Booker. That means there are four (Fowler, Kingsnorth, Jacobson and Nicholls) I don’t think I’ll be contemplating reading — your comments or a promotion to the shortlist could change those plans.

The Booker shortlist will be announced Sept. 9; the prize winner on Oct. 14. I’ll update on both those events.

And please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts — on Booker listed novels or those that did not make the longlist cut. With the new rules, this year is a brand-new experience. While I can’t say that I particularly like what I see so far, maybe that is just a case that the negatives are obvious and I haven’t discovered the positives yet.

43 Responses to “2014 Booker longlist and KfC’s plans”

  1. Carole Besharah Says:

    As a fellow Canadian and Can Lit lover, I feel much like you today. The lack of Commonwealth titles on the list is dismaying. Still, I look forward to cracking open a few of these books, especially Joshua Ferris’s novel.

    The Giller Prize will be much sweeter this year, don’t you think?

    Cheers.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Canada definitely has had a good run in recent years, so I probably shouldn’t be complaining. And I certainly don’t rely on a Booker listing for my Canadian reading agenda —🙂. On the other hand, it has been a useful source for pointing me to writers elsewhere in the Commonwealth, so I’ll miss that.

      And the Giller has its own sweetness for me and I am looking forward to it every bit as much as usual.

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  2. Brett Says:

    I read Orfeo in February and, being a musician (an opera singer), I was enthralled by it. I know non-musicians who were less enthusiastic so I will be curious to hear your take on it. I can say with certainly that Powers knows his music and, more importantly, his protagonist speaks like a musician. Too often I can tell, in books in which music plays a significant role, that the author has simply turned to a dictionary to pepper his/her novel with musical terms in order to give characters credibility. Not since Robertson Davies have I been so thoroughly convinced by an author in this regard. Enjoy!

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Orfeo will be my first Powers — commentary I have read before suggested his work was too close to SF for my tastes. Having said that, a music angle is every bit as positive for me as SF is negative and I am delighted to read your endorsement of its authenticity. I have now heard enough positives about this one that I will probably put it third or fourth on my list — I find that reading books that carry fewer expectation for me first is a good idea.

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  3. Brett Says:

    P.S. I am saddened to see that The Orenda (which was not released until November in the UK and was this eligible for this year’s Booker) did not make the list. I think Boyden deserves a wider audience.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was hoping to see The Orenda there as well but I did wonder how well it would “travel” with a U.K. jury that was heavy on academics. I suspect that growing up in Huron and Iroquois country (as I did) probably made the book more accessible to me that to a lot of U.K. readers. Then again, our two international Shadow Giller jurors (one in Utah and the other an Aussie living in London) both had it at the top of their lists last fall.

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  4. Slightly Bookist Says:

    Glad to see you’ll be writing about the books. I look forward to reading your reviews. The Jacobson and the Kingsnorth, along with Smith, are the ones I’m most interested in. Although I’m a big Siri Hustvedt fan, I couldn’t get into her book.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      If you do read and review those two, could you please check back with links and I’ll include them in my 2014 Booker sidebar when I get it set up later today? The Jacobson has two strikes against it when it comes to my tastes — I abandoned The Finkler Question and I loathe dystopian fiction. On the other hand, positive thoughts about the Kingsnorth could well change my intentions on that one — what put me off a bit in the descriptions I read were references to him including historically accurate details. I’d prefer my fiction to be fiction, not history (even if Harvest was my choice last year.

      And if your comment about Hustvedt had come before I ordered the book, I suspect I would have left it off my list. She and Ferris share a characteristic with me — I liked the first one of each that I read, then found succeeding efforts to be less interesting. Your comment has me thinking that I will read it first, since my experience with her is that her work is a relative “friendly” read even if I am not super-impressed.

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      • Slightly Bookist Says:

        I’ll definitely let you know my thoughts if I get to them. I can go either way on dystopian fiction, and didn’t read The Finkler Question, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.

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      • Kerry Says:

        I just finished Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and was excited to see it on the long list. I was also eager to hear your thoughts as I know you have some appreciation for / interest in / knowledge of the art scene. I am trying to avoid pushing your expectations either way as I know that can affect my experience of a book, but I am quite curious what your reaction will be. I will check back often and, threatening to precipitate an apocalypse or something, may even get my thoughts transferred to my blog.

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Quite right, Kerry — the art world, like the music world (see Powers), gives those two an added edge for me.

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  5. roughghosts Says:

    As a fellow Canadian I agree that it is unfortunate to see the virtual disappearance of Commonwealth authors. I always enjoy these lists and seem to find at least one unexpected gem I might not have uncovered. The only title on the list I have read to date is The Wake which is such a truly original novel that it deserves a look. If nothing else it raises some very interesting questions about the way historical could be realized.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I always figured that the chance of a Booker listing led to more Canadian authors getting published in the U.K. Life of Pi hardly swept Canadian prize lists — when it won the Booker a few years later, sales eventually topped 2 million. Okay, that marks me as a national chauvinist.

      Thanks for the positive thoughts about The Wake — I’m now thinking that I will definitely read it if it makes the shortlist.

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  6. Guy Savage Says:

    I really liked The Blazing World–although it’s not a read for everyone.

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  7. Guy Savage Says:

    No Kevin. This was my first by this author.

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  8. Eileen Pierce Says:

    Please do not miss We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It is a wonderful read…funny, wise, unique. One if my favorite reads. And Siri Hustvedt’s Blazing World is brilliant.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’m afraid I’ll read the Fowler novel only if it makes the short list — reviews and comments indicate quite strongly that it probably doesn’t suit my tastes. I will be starting out with Hustvedt’s novel.

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  9. novelescapades Says:

    Hi, great to find your blog again. I recall reading it when you started in 2009. Really excited to read your opinions of the books as you read them. Happenstance that I just finished Orfeo as the longlist came out – I enjoyed it with a kind of cold reverence but not a love. I think the Flanagan looks great and the Neel Mukherjee I am looking forward to hearing more about

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Welcome back. Orfeo seems to have drawn positive views from people with many different kinds of preferences, which I take as a good sign. I’m looking forward to Mukherjee as well — with authors like Rushdie, Mistry, Ghosh, etc., it seemed there was an Indian saga on the Booker list every year (and usually it was a very, very good book). It has been a couple years since we have seen one.

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  10. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hello Kevin, I am delighted to see The Narrow Road to the Deep North on the list. It’s a brilliant book.
    My review is not adequate, but there are links from it to other reviews that better convey how good it is. Here’s the URL: http://anzlitlovers.com/2014/01/21/the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/

    However, as to the rest of the list, what can we say? It is as we expected, and not because IMO US and UK writing is the best, but because a bigger pool makes bigger waves to swamp everything else. I think it’s a real shame for Commonwealth writing, exacerbated by the changes to the Comm Prize which now just has a short story award and a debut award.

    When I think of the great writing I’ve enjoyed from the old Comm Prize and the Booker when it was more inclusive, I feel really cheated by this longlist.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for that link, Lisa — I was certain you had reviewed it but was too busy yesterday to go casting about. I’ll address the other issue you raise in my response to Kimbofo.

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  11. kimbofo Says:

    Nail. Head. Re: commonwealth writers falling off the radar, which is a great shame. I would have liked to have seen Boyden’s Orenda on the list, but I guess it’s hard to create a truly representative list – gender, nation, colour etc – when only 13 titles can be on it. That said, am delighted to see Flanagan on it: he’s my favourite Australian writer and this book is just heart-rending and by far the best novel I’ve read all year. How he came to write it and the research he did is almost as incredible as the story he tells.

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    • kimbofo Says:

      I forgot to mention that I read and reviewed Niall Williams’ History of the Rain earlier in the year, which is a lovely read, heavy on literary references (so will appeal to voracious readers) but with great storytelling at its heart. It’s also wildly different to anything he’s done before (I’ve read 4 or 5 by him) and deserves a wide audience.

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    • Lisa Hill Says:

      Well said, Kim. I *must* get round to reading Orenda, I bought it when the Shadow Giller said I should!

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      • kimbofo Says:

        I’d interested in your take on it, Lisa, as it’s about First Nations and doesn’t shy away from the violence and brutality of their cultures.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Lisa, Kim — While I never closely followed the Commonwealth Prize, I do agree that its effective demise at the same time as the new Booker rules adds to the reduction in attention for Commonwealth writers. I’m not really worried about the Old Dominions — we have enough prizes of our own, although I suspect Aussie and Canadian authors are going to find it tougher to get UK publishers. It is the African and Asian voices that I will miss — I’m not so keen that I follow those prizes but did appreciate it when they showed up on Booker lists.

      Flanagan and Williams are the two that I am most looking forward to (so I guess that means you can ignore the Booker, Kim). I know how much both of you two like Flanagan and this will be my first. And I do have a fondness for the Irish. As I noted on another forum yesterday, the contrarian in me really wants to like an Irish or Aussie title best this year — and put the personal kibosh on the U.K./U.S. angle.

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  12. Lisa Hill Says:

    Well said, Kevin, I agree about the Asian and African voices. The Man Asian has disappeared for want of a sponsor, and African prizes are too patchy to follow.

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  13. Lee Monks Says:

    I look forward to your appraisals as and when, Kevin, as usual. Particularly interested to see what you make of Orfeo.

    I think it’s a pretty disappointing list on reflection. David Nicholls shouldn’t be anywhere near it, unless he is no longer a formulaic crowd-pleaser, which I doubt. The idea that he is a better writer than, for example, Joseph Boyden or Nicola Barker is nothing short of laughable. That’s not going over the top: Dame Stella would be proud I’m sure.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The jury certainly does not seem to be taking any chances. And I would say they have enrolled in the objective of “let’s get the Americans in and see if we can sell more books”. I don’t think we have the Dame Stella disasters (a lot of those choices were allegedly “popular” but when you read them they were just plain bad books) but we do seem headed for a ranking of “authors you know”.

      The great thing about low expectations, however, is that I may be in for some pleasant surprises.

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      • Lee Monks Says:

        I hadn’t actually realised that the latest St Aubyn was about Dame Stella’s surreally disastrous stewardship…shooting sharks in a barrel with a pea-shooter seems to encapsulate the critical response…Stuart Kelly’s TLS take seems a little precious, mind.

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I’ve ordered the St. Aubyn but thought I would leave reading it until late September or October when my prize reading is pretty much done — I’m pretty sure I would be up to some comic relief then. I’m not expecting anything more than some insider entertainment when I do get to it.

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  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I rather struggle to see the point of a prize that largely tells us about already well known authors already well publicised releases. That was always a bit of an issue with the Booker, but there were also always a few interesting surprises. At the moment I’m just not finding any interest in the prize this year, which isn’t to say there aren’t any good books on the list, just that for a prize to have any value I think it has to have the potential to surprise and delight.

    Still, hopefully your upcoming posts will prove my doubts unfounded.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did think about you when I saw the list. Usually there are one or two “edgy” works (e.g. Will Self’s Umbrella) that have appeal for those who like some risk in their fiction. There certainly doesn’t seem to be one that fits that idea on this list — indeed with Nicholls and Fowler, the jury seemed to head in the other direction.

      And I am certainly not meaning to suggest that means there are not good books on the list — with nine on my agenda, I’m quite looking forward to the reading.

      I’d agree that most juries seem to like the idea of “surprise and delight” and at least indulge in a couple titles that fit that niche. I am fully aware, however, that I am hardly the target audience for the Booker and its stated purpose of selling more books. So if my upcoming reviews can point you to one or two that are better than expected (since most of these authors have established reputations) I would say that that would be success enough. My problem with Dame Stella’s disaster year wasn’t that they chose populist books, it was that they chose badly-written populist books.

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      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I have Umbrella, though I’ve yet to read it. Mitchell was the one who stood out to me – I enjoyed his Ghostwritten as a solid piece of high octane contemporary-SF, but while I’d call him a good writer it wouldn’t have occurred to me to call him a Booker writer if you know what I mean.

        Then again, I’ve only read his first novel, so it’s entirely possible he has grown. One shouldn’t leap to judgement.

        I don’t mind a goal of selling more books, but I’d rather see it aimed at books that aren’t otherwise selling but deserve to rather than those that will likely sell anyway.

        Agreed on Dame Stella’s year. Populism is fine, great and popular are not necessarily incompatible, the problem as you say they chose bad and popular.

        Anyway, looking forward to your reviews and I hope for your sake that they all prove to easily merit their nominations.

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        • Lisa Hill Says:

          Max, I have Umbrella too, and am yet to read it and more than a few other interesting Booker shortlisters over the years – always a good idea to have some in store for the years when the bad and the popular take over altogether.
          Re David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas is a splendid book, possibly the pinnacle of his writing career – I’ve never got round to reading its successors for fear of disappointment. To me, that’s what the Booker should be for – to bring us memorable books like that.

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        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          I’d say Mitchell is right up there on the list of “expected” Booker contenders. I like his work, although some are definitely better than others — Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten would be my two preferences, his most recent (The Thousand Autumns of Jack De Zoet) is probably my least favorite.

          SF-style writers have supposedly been “poison” for Booker juries — one of the interesting things about this year’s longlist is that both Mitchell and Powers would appear to come from that Booker overlooked school of writing.

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        • jacquiwine Says:

          Max: can I just add my voice to Kevin and Lisa’s endorsement of Cloud Atlas; it’s a truly ambitious, dazzling piece of work, one that illustrates Mitchell’s range in terms of style. I need to get to Ghostwritten – another one that has been sitting on my shelf for a while, but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it.

          Kevin: I look forward to your reviews of the longlisted titles you plan on reading. I volunteer at our local library, and the Booker Prize attracts much interest there, so I’m keen to keep an eye on it.

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          • Carole Besharah Says:

            All of you have convinced my to read Cloud Altas. Just received an advanced copy of the author’s The Bone Clocks, yay! Booker reading commences. Looking forward to discussing the books with fellow readers. Cheers!

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        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          I have wondered for some time if my positive thoughts about Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten (they are my two favorite Mitchells) didn’t produce an expectation and bias that unfairly affected my opinion of his last one. His new one isn’t due out until September and I have not yet been offered an ARC — so I will be leaving it until late in my Booker reading and doing my best to pay as little attention as possible until it is released.

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          • jacquiwine Says:

            It’s difficult, isn’t it? I was a little disappointed in Black Swan Green and sometimes wonder if my expectations were too high (or oriented in a different direction) as a consequence of Cloud Atlas. I ought to reread it one day.

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  15. Cheryl Collins Says:

    The subject matter of We are all completely beside ourselves didn’t appeal to me, but being a Booker groupie ( and since it was in paperback) I gave it a go and was absolutely gripped by it- I thought it was a worthy inclusion. I’ve also now read the Ferris and the Williams and found both of them rather trite and formulaic but I loved The Blazing World( I should say I am a big Hustvedt fan).

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      We have started with almost the same titles — I won’t be reading the Fowler unless it makes the short list but I have read the other three you mention. As you can see from my review, I thought The Blazing World was challenging but good — reviews on the other two should be up within the next 10 days. Thanks for checking in.

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