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.
So, along with the Giller shortlist announcement, apparently there was some other prize being awarded today across the pond? Seems like it went to Hilary Mantel for her novel Wolf Hall.
From the Man Booker website (where the person pressing the “publish” button must have had a live link-up to the banquet hall):
Hilary Mantel is tonight (Tuesday 6 October) named the winner of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall, published by Fourth Estate.
Wolf Hall has been the bookies’ favourite since the longlist was announced in July 2009.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was picked from a shortlist of six titles. A.S. Byatt, J.M. Coetzee, Adam Foulds, Simon Mawer, and Sarah Waters were all shortlisted for this year’s prize.
The 2009 Man Booker Prize shortlist has been announced, and it’s long on heavy hitters. Coetzee, Byatt, and Waters are all present and accounted for; James Laxer, author of the satiric mock memoir Me Cheeta and Canada’s own Ed O’Loughlin were cut.
The list in full:
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The list is not much of a corrective to Boyd Tonkin’s complaint that this year’s nominees are highly anglocentric and lack a certain adventurousness. Three of the six (Byatt, Coetzee, and Waters) are veterans of the Booker list; Byatt won in 1990 for Possession and Coetzee has won twice, in 1999 for Disgrace and in 1983 for The Life & Times of Michael K. The £50,000 prize will be awarded on October 6.
Only in Canada, eh? Well, apparently not. Followers of yr. humble correspondent’s perennial complaints about the timidity of many award juries in this country may be surprised to learn that the same complaints do occasionally surface elsewhere. Specifically, Boyd Tonkin, writing in the Independent, takes on what he feels to be a lack of boldness on the part of this year’s Man Booker jury:
We should never have expected a jury as orthodox in taste as the one James Naughtie chairs to seek out as waywardly extravagant a novel as Joseph’s Box by the Scottish doctor-author Suhayl Saadi, which drives us deep into the history and myths of Europe and south Asia alike. But, in a bolder year, he and other writers from non-corporate imprints might have stood a better chance. For all the formidable works that feature on this Man Booker baker’s dozen, it thumpingly embodies the conventional wisdom of 2009. Whiffs of cordite from the coming battle between A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters, Colm Toibin and Hilary Mantel (to pick four impressive top contenders) have been perceptible in print for several months already.
It remains to be seen whether the jury will go for a shortlist composed entirely of big names (Byatt, Coetzee, Mantel, Tóibín, and Waters), or whether they will branch out to include underdogs such as James Lever’s mock memoir Me Cheeta, about Hollywood film star Johnny Weismuller’s chimpanzee sidekick. Whatever the final outcome, however, this year’s retreat into anglocentric orthodoxy is undeniable.
And, as usual, I haven’t read a single one of them. The baker’s dozen are:
- The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
- Summertime by J.M. Coetzee
- The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
- How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
- The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
- Me Cheeta by James Lever
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
- The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
- Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin
- Heliopolis by James Scudamore
- Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
- Love and Summer by William Trevor
- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
No Canadian names on the list, which is open to Commonwealth writers with books published in the U.K. between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009. The jury considered 132 titles, of which 11 were called in, to come up with the longlist. Jury chair James Naughtie (refrain from comment, Beattie, refrain …) calls this year’s longlist “one of the strongest in recent memory,” and goes on to say:
Our fiction is in the hands of original and dedicated writers with fresh and appealing voices. This is an eclectic list, taking us from the court of Henry VIII to the Hollywood jungle, with stops along the way in a nineteenth century Essex asylum, an African warzone and a futuristic Brazilian city among other places.
The shortlist will be announced on September 8, and the winner of the £50,000 purse will be declared on October 6.