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Man Booker 2016: highs and lows

Man Booker 2016-LogoFirst 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.



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

35 thoughts on “Man Booker 2016: highs and lows

  • Pingback: Reading Snapshot September 2016 | BookerTalk

  • I completely agree with your thoughts on the long-list (though I’m only talking about the general views, I haven’t actually read any of the titles yet). I meant to read the Strout since it was longlisted for the Baileys and ‘North Water’ has been on the wishlist since it came out (I’m hoping for a hat trick of whale books this year).
    Now its looking like ‘Bloody Project’ will be my first Booker read though – thanks for the Amazon tip 😉

    • I was wondering if the Amazon price would go up now it’s on the longlist….. I’m intrigued by North Water too

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  • Eileen’s a great, weird little novel – I’m not sure it’s a winner, but it might well make it to the shortlist. The North Water is, by all rights, shortlist material: I read it by utter happenstance the weekend before the longlist announcement and was ambushed by it. It’s disturbing, but very good writing. Serious Sweet is on my pile at the moment and looks rather wonderful, and I’ve now got a copy of The Many, too. Bit horrified not to see The Essex Serpent (maybe they thought it was *too* successful? It’s been on bestseller lists since its release…) or The Tidal Zone, which is definitely one of the best novels published this year. No accounting for taste…

    • North Water initially extracted a groan when I saw it on the list – i had visions of long passages searching for whales a la moby dick. but I’ve just read an extract and it’s changed my mind about whether to read it. Essex Serpent I never expected to see on this list – good story and all that but not pushing many boundaries

      • I don’t often think of the Booker Prize list as boundary-pushing, at least not recently, but you may be right. And yeah, do give The North Water a shot! I too thought “oh gawd, more Men Finding Themselves With Big Scary Nature”, but it’s a cracking book for all that.

        • Off to see if i can get a copy today from the library (I don’t buy hardbacks!)

  • I read Eileen and I liked it a lot so glad to see it on there. I’m sorry there are no Irish writers on the list this year – I thought Kevin Barry might nudge in with Beatlebone.

  • I agree that it is nice to see so many debut novels instead of the same big names over and over. and the gender balance is pretty good too. However, like you, I am also disappointed over the lack of diversity.

    • Yep this is one year where we wont hear complaints about the lack of female authors

  • Must say that I was disappointed that there was no Australian contingent (specifically Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things) – I do think allowing the US in has upset the balance.

    I’ve read two of the longlist – Eileen and Lucy Barton – loved them both for different reasons. Are they Booker winners? Perhaps Lucy Barton is but I didn’t finish either thinking “That will win prizes!”

    • I don’t see Strout winning though it was a highly accomplished novel. I’m going to read samples from each of the others since I know so little about them – then i might get a better idea of what could be on the shortlist. Right now I’flying blind

      • I’m going to wait for the shortlist and see if there are any that appeal – still haven’t read last year’s winner, even though it’s been in the TBR stack since December 2014!

        • I’ve downloaded samples so i can decide which to read first. like you I can’t see me reading many before the shortlist

  • Lizzysidal makes a good point about nominations. Of the longlist I’ve read only two – the Strout and the Reeves. Loved the Strout and admired the Reeves!

    • And i certainly wouldn’t want to see some kind of quota introduced but undoubtedly with only so many spots available, the sheer size of the USA publication industry is going to mean multiple entries from that country – and thus pushing out the smaller geographies

  • His Bloody Project is the one I’m most intesested in. I wonder what its chances are in making it to the shortlist or in winning…?

    • Thats going to depend on how different it is from the usual crime fiction offerings…..

  • Shame it’s all English language – and odd that Julian Barnes didn’t make the list as The Noise of Time was highly regarded.

    • It’s Barnes that I’ve seen mentioned most frequently as being the surprise omission. I was surprised Dave Eggers didnt get on the list because i’ve seen nothing but positive reviews

  • lizzysiddal

    Can we say that the judges are excluding Commonwealth writing when we don’t even know what was submitted? Perhaps the publishers did the excluding?

    Regardless, this is about the best book – the judges shouldn’t even think about countries of origin.

    • Its a fair comment – we don’t know of course what was nominated and the judges never disclose that. Judging by the track record of authors from many Commonwealth countries that are now missing, I’d take a guess that they were nominated – but not deemed worthy enough.

  • I tend to agree about the lack of authors outside UK and US. I know there is always likelihood I will have different views ( eg I’ve read Hot Milk – good but not great for me). Given the fears at the time of extending criteria I am surprised that they have effectively gone ahead and done what many readers feared they would. And though again I know individual differences and all that but how did Under Udala Trees not make long list??????

    • I knew you were rooting for Udala Trees – I’ve not read it yet but it does sound rather special. Hot Milk I have just got as a free sample for the e reader – I’m not that sure I want to read it in total so thought the sample would give me an idea of the style etc

  • Delighted to see Graeme Macrae Burnet there, as I just got My Bloody Project out to read – a total coincidence! The cover is fabulous too, it looks like it’s smeared in real bloody fingerprints. Contraband (which is the crime arm of publishers Saraband) have snapped up a lot of the best Scottish crime writers which are looking to become the next big thing – although Burnet’s work is more ambitious than your average crime novel, by far. Look forward to reading Eileen too. I also have My Name Is Lucy Barton – one book I think everyone expected to be on the list.

    • Bloody Project is on offer via Amazon as an e version for an incredibly low price today so of course i just had to buy it

      • Look forward to hearing your thoughts – although it may be too “crime” to get much further; I think that’s what scuppered Louise Welsh with her debut The Cutting Room 10-odd years ago. But you never know; different juries, different tastes!

        • it would need to take crime into a very different dimension I suspect to get much further.

        • Yes, I agree. I planned to start it over the weekend but I picked up Elizabeth Wilson’s She Died Young, and it’s got the era and the setting that I adore. But I’ll rattle through it. It’s very good thus far. I’m delighted for Saraband – they only have one full-time staff member, according to the Guardian! I enjoy seeing small indie publishers flourish, and support them when I can (especially the Scottish ones!)

        • i didnt know they were that tiny. Gosh they must be on a high

  • I’ve read two of the longlist, ‘The Sellout’ and ‘Eileen’, both were fine. I’m a bit disappointed ‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift did not make the longlist.

    • doesn’t sound as if you think those two were really Booker quality??


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