David Mitchell out; Ali Smith, Howard Jacobson, and Karen Joy Fowler in on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist
Anyone who had money on David Mitchell going all the way with this year’s Man Booker Prize will need to pony up this morning. The author’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, which has been roundly hailed as a masterpiece on both sides of the Atlantic, was shut out of the shortlist for the prize, which culled a list of thirteen books down to six.
Two Americans made the cut: Joshua Ferris for his sophomore novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and Karen Joy Fowler for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler represents a populist note in a list that otherwise tilts toward more literary fare.
This was the first year the prize was open to writers outside the Commonwealth, Ireland, and Zimbabwe; many critics felt that allowing U.S. authors to compete would result in another avenue for American cultural hegemony, though that worry proved chimerical, at least for the current calendar year: the other three books on the shortlist are all by authors who would have been eligible prior to the controversial rule change. (No Canadians made the 2014 longlist.)
Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the 2010 prize (and who is currently working on a “reboot” of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), got the nod for his dystopian novel J. Ali Smith, a previous nominee for The Accidental (in 2001) and Hotel World (in 2005), is nominated for her new novel How to Be Both. Australian Richard Flanagan is shortlisted for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Neel Mukherjee rounds out the list with his novel The Lives of Others.
A.C. Grayling, chair of the 2014 judging panel, is quoted on the Man Booker website as saying, “We had a lengthy and intensive debate to whittle the list down to these six. It is a strong, thought-provoking shortlist which we believe demonstrates the wonderful depth and range of contemporary fiction in English.”
The other jurors are Jonathan Bate, author and provost of Worcester College; Sarah Churchwell, author and academic; Daniel Glaser, neuroscientist (described as “the first pure scientist to be a Man Booker judge”); Alastair Niven, fellow of Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford; and Erica Wagner, author and journalist.
This year’s prize has already caused consternation for a “lack of big names” and a number of titles that were unpublished at the time of the longlist announcement. In the same article, John Dugdale writes about what he sees as the relative provincialism of this year’s longlist of titles:
With notable exceptions, American novelists tend to write about the U.S., and none of the four – Joshua Ferris, Karen Joy Fowler, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Powers – set their selected books abroad. So although non-western countries are depicted in works by Flanagan, Neel Mukherjee, and Joseph O’Neill, there’s a marked sense of restricted horizons when set against a 2013 longlist full of travellers and immigrants, and in which [Eleanor] Catton, NoViolet Bulawayo, Richard House, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ruth Ozeki all pulled off ambitious intercontinental narratives.
The winner of the £50,000 purse will be announced on October 14. Last year’s prize went to Catton for her second novel, The Luminaries.
Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.
To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:
- The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
- In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
- April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
- There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.
Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.
So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.
UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.
This past weekend, Howard Jacobson published an article in the Guardian bemoaning the lack of attention comic novels receive among literary critics and readers of “serious” literature:
The novel was born of restless critical intelligence, and it was born laughing. “It pleases me to think,” said Milan Kundera, in the course of accepting the Jerusalem prize for literature in 1985, “that the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter.” If this is so, then talk of the comic novel is tautologous. If we are to be true to the form there will be only “novels” and they will be effusive with wit and humour; thereafter, to help the bookshops categorise, we can allow all the sub-species they have shelf-space for – the novel of distended plot and fatuous denouement, the novel of who cares who dunnit, the novel of what Orwell in his great defence of Henry Miller called “flat cautious statements and snack-bar dialects,” the novel, to sum up, of anorexic mirthlessness. But let’s not forget that those are the anomalies.
As if to lend credence to Jacobson’s analysis, the Man Booker Prize jury, chaired by poet Andrew Motion, awarded The Finkler Question this year’s £50,000 honour, trumping the heavily favoured C by Tom McCarthy, and such heavy hitters as Room by Emma Donoghue and Parrot and Olivier in America by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey.
The Finkler Question is being touted as the first comic novel to win the award, which is not entirely true: DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little is technically a satire, but it could be argued that the 2003 Booker winner is a comic novel (the distinction between satire and comedy is razor thin). Still, it’s nice to see a book that is not utterly morose and sombre walk away with a major literary award.
Of course, the second-guessing has already begun. On the Guardian‘s blog, Sarah Crown writes:
I – like quite a few others, if the comments on the books blogs are anything to go by – preferred [Jacobson’s] 2006 novel Kalooki Nights; it’s difficult to shake the faint sense that tonight’s prize is somewhat in the nature of a lifetime achievement award.
Nevertheless, Jacobson’s win is a validation of Flannery O’Connor’s assertion in the introduction to the second edition of her debut novel, Wise Blood: “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”
It would appear that this year’s Man Booker Prize jury agrees.