In my last post, I argued that critics tend to look for innovation in writing, rather than ‘quality’. This argument appears to be validated (at least in part) by the shortlist selections for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.
There was a commentary in the Evening Standard on September 13 written by the Literary Editor, David Sexton, from which I quote.
“This year’s Man Booker shortlist is a total surprise. The two most obvious contenders from the longlist failed to make the cut, Colson Whitehead’s vivid, inventive novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad. has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award in the United States, and been warmly endorsed by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Now it has been discarded by the Booker.
“Sebastian Barry’s lyrical ballad about a young Irishman and his partner fighting through the Civil War in America, Days Without End, won him the Costa Book Award last year – but it doesn’t figure either. Booksellers will be clasping their heads today.
“Could the judges, chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey, have possibly been influenced by a desire not to be seen to be following the other big prizes and so seem behind the pace? Surely not, because the prize’s one criterion is to find ‘the best novel of the year’. regardless. The problem is that the five judges change every year, so there is no consistency and rarely any clear agreement, producing the erratic decisions that the Booker is famous for – including many terrible eventual winners. When Julian Barnes dismissed the prize (before he won it) as ‘posh bingo’, he did it too much honour.
“The committee system is simply not a good way of determining ultimate literary value. If you rope together five individuals and they charge off eagerly in different directions, they are likely all to end up flat on their faces – as I know from my own experience. Camels are animals designed by committee, and Booker shortlists are compromises.
“Lola Young emphasises that the judges have discovered ‘six unique and intrepid books that collectively push against the borders of convention’. Perhaps that is all convention ever deserves, to be intrepidly but collectively pushed against?
“The shortlist is certainly great news for the debut novelists, Emily Fridlund. 38, and Fiona Mozley, 29. Our reviewer called the latter’s novel, Ehmet, ‘a wonder to behold’ and hoped this David would conquer the Goliaths of the Booker. However, of the novels that have survived this eccentric winnowing, the favourite to win, if it is determined on merit, must surely be Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, a writer who first came to prominence here through being awarded the Booker’s rival, the Folio Prize, for his short stories. It’s and extraordinary invention: voices from limbo, counsel from the afterlife, heard as President Lincoln grieves his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862. ‘A dark imagination in service of a tender heart’, said our reviewer Johanna Thomas-Corr. Properly unique.”
The shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize is:
- Elmet, by Fiona Mozley
- Autumn, by Ali Smith
- 4321, by Paul Auster
- History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund
- East West, by Mohsin Hamid
- Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Reading (and blogging) my way through the shortlist this year. So far, with Fridlund’s novel and half of Auster’s 4321 to go, I’m thinking Elmet and Lincoln in the Bardo are both nudging ahead…