Man Booker 2016: highs and lows
First there were 155 contenders. Today’s announcement of the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize brought that down to 13. Come September 13, there will be just six left in the running before the big announcement of the winner on Tuesday 25 October.
When I saw the list initially it confirmed what I’d predicted a few weeks ago – that I wouldn’t be familiar with most of the titles (I’ve read just one of these books – My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout). After a few hours of reflection, I’m left with some positive reactions but also some niggles about the selection….
On the plus side …..
I’m delighted to see so many debut authors featured in the list because there’s always a risk with a prize as prestigious as the Booker that it will be dominated by the big names. Thankfully the judges saw past the great and the good to list four debut authors: Hystopia by David Means; The Many by Wyl Menmuir; Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. Getting on the list may not translate into huge commercial success unless they also make it to the shortlist but what a confidence builder this will be. It’s refreshing to see that the list made up of names that always make it to the Booker list. Only 2 of the 13 authors (Coetzeee and Levy) have ever previously been long listed for the Booker. I know this means that big names like Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain and Don DeLillo are missing but every year we get similar comments about ‘such and such a name’ being snubbed or overlooked.
Also good to see smaller publishing houses featured once again. Last year independent publisher Oneworld was cock-a-hoop when Marlon James walked off with the ultimate prize A Brief History of Seven Killings. This year they’re back in contention with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, described by the Guardian as “a galvanising satire of post-racial America”. Salt – a publisher whose output I’m getting to know slowly – also features on the list with Wyl Menmuir – as does a small independent crime fiction imprint Contraband with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project
One thing I look to the Man Booker Prize to celebrate and applaud is innovation in narrative styles and storytelling techniques. I love the fact that they have selected a crime thriller this year – it’s a genre that often unfairly gets the sniffy treatment from the establishment as being somehow of a lesser standard than more highbrow ‘literary’ fiction. It’s not the first time a crime story has been selected – the 2013 winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – was essentially in that vein. and it does seem that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a cut above your average crime novel.
And yet …..
There is a worrying lack of geographic diversity in this list. It’s so heavily weighted towards UK and US authors (five from each country) that Commonwealth authors barely get a look in and even then 2 of the three hail from Canada. It’s left to J.M. Coetzee to represent the huge geographic swathes of Africa, India and Australasia. The Booker was criticised a few years ago when they changed the rules to allow entries by USA authors from 2014 with alarm bells raised that this would push out authors from the Commonwealth. And so it’s proved to be the case. Are the judges really saying there were no authors from any of those countries that were worthy of listing?? It’s the diversity of previous listed authors that I’ve appreciated, being introduced to writers and cultural perspectives that were completely new to me. I do hope this is a blip and we wont see a pattern emerging in future years.
Author (nationality) – Title (imprint)
Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld): described as a satire of post-racial America
J.M. Coetzee (South African) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker): this will not be published until September 30 so little is known about it other than it is something of a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus.
A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape): a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours.
Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton): described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband): Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869.
Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK): a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic
David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber): the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and returning soldiers have their traumas wiped.
Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt): the novel tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish fishing village. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. Apparently he wrote this after attending a creative writing course where his tutors were less than enthusiastic about his effort.
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape): set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter.
Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK): Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines.
Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking): a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here
David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape): I’m not clear whether this is genuinely a novel of a collection of stories about a different stage of “man’s” life.
Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books): relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution.