Booker Prize 2019: Hit Or Miss? What The Experts Think

Booker Prize longlist 2019

It’s Booker Prize season once more. The 2019 longlist was announced this week, triggering a process that will end on October 14 when the winner will pick up their £50,000 cheque.

It all felt very familiar. 

But there was one thing different this year. 

The judges made their usual remarks about the diversity and richness of the novels submitted for consideration. And, as so often in the past, they described their experience of reading 151 novels as  “exhilarating.”  It’s not my idea of exhilaration but perhaps that’s why I’ve never had the call inviting me to become a Booker Prize judge. 

There was no controversy about the longlist. 

No complaints about the imbalance between male and female authors. 

No complaints that the judges were dumbing down the prize, trading literary experimentation and creativity for re-readability and popularity

And no complaints that the prize was becoming dominated by American authors at the expensive of those from Commonwealth countries. 

The reaction to the longest announcement was in fact rather muted. 

Booker Prize: Reactions from Experts

What’s all the fuss about?

The surprise about this year’s Booker longlist? That for the first time in years, there are few surprises.

Justine Jardin, The Guardian

Justin Jardin’s reaction encapsulated the responses of many literary editors and arts editors who work for national newspapers around the world.

The longlist … is ever so woke-flavoured; it’s very Hackney book club. It’s solid … but it lacks thrillers.


Robbie Millen, Literary Editor , The Times

Reading these articles I got the feeling that journalists were struggling to make a decent story out of the Booker Prize longlist.

The mystery novel

A number of them like Alex Marshall, European culture correspondent for the New York Times, homed in on the one book on the list which is a mystery.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, doesn’t get released until after the shortlist is announced on May 3.

“….its contents and plot are a closely guarded secret. Little is known except that it is set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale and is narrated by three female characters. 

Alex Marshall, New York Times

According to The Guardian, the Booker Prize judges were so constrained by “a ferocious non disclosure agreement’ that they couldn’t give any details about plot, setting or characters. All they could say was :

… it’s terrifying and exhilarating.

Big names dominate

Several of the editors focused on the presence of previous award winners, like Margaret Atwood, in the longlist.

Booker Prize 2019 longlist
Authors featured in the Booker Prize 2019 longlist

Irish News speculated that Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker Prize almost four decades ago could win again. His novel Quichotte, which is published in August, is described a picaresque road trip through contemporary America and was inspired by Don Quixote.

Other newspapers highlighted that this will be the third nomination in a row for Deborah Levy. Her novel The Man Who Saw Everything, contains two versions of the same story.

Although the list is packed with the names of well established authors, only The Guardian mentioned some notable omissions such as Ian McEwan, Mark Haddon and Ali Smith all of whom had well received novels published within the eligibility period.

Weighing in at 1,000 pages

It was the inclusion of Lucy Ellman on the Booker Prize longlist that caught the attention of Anita Singh of The Daily Telegraph.

If you’re looking for a long read, the Booker Prize has just the thing.

Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, consists of a single sentence running over 1,000 pages. It is the interior monologue of an Ohio housewife … a stream-of-consciousness written without paragraphs or full stops.

The 426,100-word sentence is broken only a handful of times, 

Anita Singh, The Daily Telegraph

As if anticipating the eyebrow raising and pursed lips that would greet Ellmann’s inclusion, Anita Singh quoted the judges’ comments about how readable people will find this book.

The thing to know is that it’s extremely funny. So although it looks very dense and worrying on the page, actually every single page is full of puns and jokes. And there is a plot in there

Joanna MacGregor, Booker Prize judge

The nationality game

Every year the announcement of the prize is followed by an analysis of its geographic diversity.

After the rule change in , there were complaints that there were too many American authors selected, which was unfair to authors from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc

We didn’t get that reaction this year , largely because American authors were noticeable for their absence.

As David Sanderson, Arts Correspondent for The Times, noted, there is only one American on the longlist (Lucy Ellman) and she moved to UK as a teenager.

The list will go some way to appeasing British publishers who last year wrote to the Booker trustees to object to the broadening of entry criteria  to include American authors

David Sanderson, The Times

Patriotism did however rear its head. The Irish Times (of course) led its Booker story with the fact local boy Kevin Barry had been chosen for Night Boat to Tangier. They’re no doubt hoping 2019 will see Barry emulate the success of last year’s winner, Belfast-born Anna Burns

There was cause for celebration in Africa however with the inclusion of two Nigerian authors and another whose work explores the African disaspora. The Johannesburg Review of Books, was obviously nursing old wounds since they couldn’t resist mentioning the absence of any African authors on the list for the past two years.

And the winner is???

None of the journalists at this stage are predicting a winner or even what will make it to the shortlist on September 3. In any case, history has shown us that it isn’t always the favourite that walks off with the prize.

If you enjoy a little speculation, take a look at the Booker Prize 2019 longlist discussion board at Goodreads where the members of the Mookse and Gripes group are voting for their favourites.

I’m definitely underqualified to give my own predictions because, for the first time since I started my Booker Prize project, I’ve not read even one of the longlisted titles.

But if you have, then do post a comment below with your reactions and comments.

Booker Prize Longlist 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – Canada– (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – Ireland– (Canongate Books)

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Nigeria – (Atlantic Books)

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – USA/UK – (Galley Beggar Press)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

The Wall by John Lanchester – UK– (Faber & Faber)

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – Mexico/Italy– (4th Estate)

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma – Nigeria– (Little Brown)

Lanny by Max Porter – UK– (Faber & Faber)

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –UK/India– (Jonathan Cape)

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – UK/Turkey – (Viking)

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson –UK– (Jonathan Cape)

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 27, 2019, in Book prizes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.

  1. I’m obviously most interested in the new Atwood. I mean I get why she’s finally following it up with a sequel, but it’s sat on it’s own as a testament to her powerful writing and story telilng for so long – ugh.

    Rushdie’s also sounds interesting after re-reading the original Don Quixote and really enjoying it a few years ago, I’d be interested in a modernization of it.

  2. Great post BTW . For the first time I picked up a book from the long-list – I generally go only for the winner or shortlisted ones . My Sister The Serial Killer is the book which I read and wondered how in the world it made it even to the long-list . I have also reviewed it in my blog
    https://sherlockedsharon.com/2019/08/05/my-sister-the-serial-killer-book-review/
    Planning to look @ Obioma & Shafak .
    Obioma’s book has some mythical leanings which intrigued me and something tells me that it will make it to the shortlist .

    • I’m baffled too about how Serial Killer made it to the longlist. I got one of the longlisted books from the library – Girl, Woman, Other – but couldnt get into it so abandoned after about 3- pages. My library request for Lammy has just come through so before the shortlist is announced I might just have read one of the books!

    • I enjoyed an earlier book by Obioma that also was longlisted – can’t remember the title exactly but it was something about fishermen.

  3. I haven’t read any of them either, although that’s not particularly surprising given that most of my reading comes from the backlist these days. Of the books on the longlist, the Levy and the Luiselli are that ones that appeal to me the mos, probably because I’ve enjoyed other books by both of those writers. It’s interesting to see that Luiselli has moved from writing in Spanish to English with this novel, an intriguing move.

  4. I haven’t read any of these books, but I have to say that I am tired of seeing My Sister, The Serial Killer on every prize list out there. It sort of feels like lit prizes are so rare that a book should only be allowed to win one prize per year. Then again, that author, who is unlikely making loads of money off their work, would disagree with me. But overall, when I see the same book on different prize lists, I wonder why we have multiple prizes.

  5. I thought the list looked a bit bland too, and distinctly short of Commonwealth authors. The only one I’ve read is the Elif Shafak, and I thought it was one of the best books I’ve read in years, so even though I can’t judge the rest, I still hope she wins!

  6. I haven’t read any of these, though I have Girl, Woman other but haven’t been able to get into yet. Will try again soon. I have the Atwood pre-ordered, and so understand the frustration of readers who can’t read those books that aren’t published yet. I really don’t think I will ever want to read Ducks, Newburyport.

    • No I can’t see me reading Ducks either…it seems really hard work. I just picked up Girl Woman Other from the library and might take a look at it tomorrow.

  7. I agree that there’s nothing especially noteworthy or controversial about the content of the longlist this year, but I’m looking forward to reading a few of them: Luiselli, Braithwaite and Evaristo are the ones I’ll try and seek out first.

  8. I’m rooting for Kevin Barry unsurprisingly – the book is a real linguistic delight. I doubt we’ll see another Irish winner though.

  9. I liked an Orchestra of Minorities, and (in contrast to comments here) I’ve read reviews that liked My Sister the Serial Killer.
    But I didn’t really get on with The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, so i won’t be bothering with the new one, and if Series 3 of the Handmaid’s Tale on video is anything to go by, I suspect that Atwood should have left well alone. I’ll be giving it a wide berth unless or until someone I trust writes a positive review of it.
    As for the others, well, I wouldn’t call the list lacklustre but the only one I’ll make an effort to chase up is Elif Shafak’s one…

    • I enjoyed the previous one by Obioma so may give that one a go. I’m also interested in the Shafak, Porter and Barry but the rest don’t hold much appeal. No way can I see myself reading Ducks….

  10. The habitual names. Still top-heavy with northern hemisphere authors. And as for their quotes from around the world, er, not exactly…

  11. Great post – thanks . I’ve not read any of the books, as yet. I’d like to read the Ellerman whopper and the Rushdie. I note the reduction of US entrants – I’m glad to see this year’s selection has not been swamped by US writers. They have sufficient prizes of their own!

    • that’s been the feeling of so many people but the new sponsors of the prize are not indicating any change of the rules so the Americans are here to stay

  12. The only book I read was My Sister, the Serial Killer and have to say I liked the cover more than the book. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either.

    I do feel like this year’s Prize is really lacking. None if the titles quite caught my attention. I wasn’t a fan if the Handmaid’s Tale, so therefore I don’t intend on reading the sequel.

    • I really enjoyed the Handmaid’s Tale – it was so completely different to anything else i was reading at the time. But I’m not a fan of sequels/follow ups where I loved the first book – my fear is always that number 2 will be a disappointment

  13. I’ve not read any either and unlikely to before the shortlist/ winner announcement. It’s disappointing that the critics find the list so bland… love them or hate them, I reckon prizes are great for generating enthusiasm and getting people reading books they might not otherwise choose (this has certainly been my experience with Australia’s Stella Prize).

    • The Times has written a piece looking at the popularity of the winners – ie, how well did they sell. And apparently there have been only two winners in the past two decades that were a commercial success. Unfortunately that article is behind a pay wall so I can’t find out what the two were….

  14. I don’t know what it is but this year’s list feels so lacklustre. Perhaps it’s my aversion to Atwood that is making me feel that way. Out of the list I have only read Lanny (five stars from me because Max Porter can do no wrong) and I started An Orchestra of Minorities but couldn’t quite get into it and have somewhat abandoned it (which I’m disappointed by because I did very much enjoy The Fishermen).

  15. The book from the Booker longlist I most want to read is “Night Boat to Tangier” by Kevin Barry. The book I’ve read that I most wanted on the Booker list but wasn’t there was ‘The Snakes’ by Sadie Jones.

  16. Very interesting post. I’ve read none of these, and tbh the only one I’m likely to is the Atwood. I find myself with questions though. For a start I’ve seen at least one book on the list being reviewed as just a bit slight and “meh”. And it annoys me that books which aren’t released to the public are on the list. But then I am not your typical Booker reader any more (if I ever was) – so i don’t quite know who the list is actually aimed at and whether any of the books will be great. I rely on you to read them and tell me that! :DD

    • I don’t understand how books which are not published for months get selected if one of the ideas is to get people interested in reading the selected books. There are 3 of them this year! It doesn’t look as if Atwood’s inclusion has persuaded the publishers to bring forward the publication date either.

  17. I listened to the audiobook of My sister, the Serial Thriller and was quite underwhelmed. It was a good story but nothing amazing in opinion, but then I’m not into prize wining books.I also think it’s unfair to list Margaret Atwood’s book when it hasn’t even been released!

  18. Great post – really interesting summary of the responses.

    The only one I’ve read is My Sister, the Serial Killer which I thought was superb. I am desperate to read the Jeanette Winterson too.

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