David Mitchell out; Ali Smith, Howard Jacobson, and Karen Joy Fowler in on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist

September 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Man_Booker_Prize_logoAnyone 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.

Eleanor Catton wins the Man Booker Prize

October 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Eleanor_CattonAt twenty-eight years of age, Canadian-born, New Zealand–raised Eleanor Catton has become the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker Prize. Catton won for her second novel, The Luminaries, which, at close to 850 pages, is also the longest volume ever to claim the prize.

Of the winning book, chair of judges Robert Macfarlane said, “Maturity is evident in every sentence, in the rhythms and balances. It is a novel of astonishing control.”

According to The Globe and Mail, the author referred to her award-winning novel as “a publisher’s nightmare”: “The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but – even more egregious – astrologically impossible.”

In her acceptance remarks, Catton spoke about the difference between value and worth, which is cheering, but also somewhat ironic for an author claiming a prize of £50,000. Catton is also in the running for the English-language Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Catton’s win comes at an auspicious time: next year, the Man Booker Prize will change its submissions criteria to allow any novel in English published in the U.K. to be eligible for consideration, regardless of the nationality of the author. Previous rumours indicated that the award, till now restricted to authors from the U.K., Ireland, or the Commonwealth, was being opened only to U.S. authors.

We wait with bated breath to see whether the Scotiabank Giller Prize will follow suit.

Expanding the field: the Man Booker Prize to accept submissions from U.S. writers

September 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Man_Booker_Prize_logoIn news that is sure to shake up the literary establishment, The Telegraph is reporting that in 2014, for the first time in its history, the Man Booker Prize will accept submissions from American authors. Previously, the award has been restricted to English-language books published in the U.K. and written by authors from the U.K., Ireland, and the Commonwealth. The Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years, considers writers from around the globe, and is given for a body of work rather than an individual book.

Quoting a report in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph indicates that Booker administrators found the exclusion of American writers “anachronistic,” and that considering them will help “ensure the award’s global reputation.”

Writing on the Literary Saloon, M.A. Orthofer suggests that the Booker administration might have been cowed by the appearance this year of the competing Folio Prize, which considers work by English-language writers worldwide. On its website, The Folio Prize bills itself as “the first major English language book prize open to writers from around the world. Its aim is simple: to celebrate the best fiction of our time, regardless of form or genre, and to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible.” It will release its inaugural shortlist in February 2014.

The Booker rule change alters the landscape of the prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world, and is worth £50,000 to the winner. Even if publishers are restricted to two submissions, the relatively large number of books published in the U.S. will tend to crowd out those from other countries.

The change is sure to spark debate about the globalization of literary culture, and the utility of nationalist restrictions on prizes. In Canada, the three major prizes for fiction – the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award – confine themselves to books written by Canadian citizens (even those, like Patrick DeWitt or Eleanor Catton, who have lived the majority of their lives outside Canada). The Griffin Poetry Prize is the only major Canadian literary award I’m aware of with an international component; arguments have been floated for folding the Canadian and International prizes together to bolster the award’s perceived legitimacy.

At least one dissenting voice has already been heard in Britain. Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg claims to be “disappointed” by the move, which he says will eradicate the Booker’s “distinctiveness.” He compared the new rules to “a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate.”

This argument risks charges of xenophobia, but it would be ironic if, in an effort to be more inclusive, the new rule ended up turning the Booker into yet another instrument of American cultural hegemony.

On values-based fiction, or, why literature does not need to be virtuous

September 15, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

When Émile Zola published the second edition of his short novel, Thérèse Raquin, he felt compelled to append a preface responding to critics of his day who had taken him to task for writing what they considered to be a highly immoral book. “Some virtuous folk,” Zola wrote, “in no less virtuous newspapers, puckered their faces in disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it on the fire. Even the literary papers – those same literary papers that every evening report the gossip from bedrooms and private dining rooms – held their noses and spoke of stinking filth.”

No doubt these readers had some justification for their passionate reactions. First published in 1867, Thérèse Raquin tells the story of a woman thrust into a tedious arranged marriage with her cousin Camille. Thérèse is introduced to her husband’s friend, Laurent, who is much more virile, lusty, and animalistic than her gormless husband. Thérèse and Laurent embark on an affair and, almost incidentally, conspire to kill Camille. The second half of the novel traces the murderers’ psychological deterioration as a result of their crime. (In this, Zola’s novel shares a trajectory with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, published a year previously.)

While Zola’s book has elements in common with other, better known novels of adultery – Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary – it actually cleaves closer to American noir fiction: echoes of Thérèse Raquin can be detected in the work of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith.

What set early readers on edge was not so much the novel’s subject matter, which is no more lurid than many 18th-century Gothic novels, but Zola’s resolute refusal to judge his characters. The author insisted on a naturalistic, almost scientific approach to his characters: he would observe them, but not condemn them. In his preface, he likens himself to an anatomist impartially examining his “naked, living anatomical specimens.” And while he avers that a “sincere study purifies everything, as fire does,” he takes umbrage at those critics who would charge him with obscenity or immorality, claiming that such terms are of little use in discussing literature:

In our times, there are only two or three men who can read, understand, and judge a book. I accept criticism from them, certain that they would not speak until they had discovered my intentions and assessed the results of my efforts. They would be very careful not to mention those great empty words: “morality” and “literary modesty.” They would recognize my right, at a time when we enjoy freedom in art, to choose my subjects wherever I please, asking me only for works that are conscientious, and knowing that only stupidity harms the dignity of literature.

Were Zola alive today, he might find himself making many of the same arguments. Indeed, the puritanical voices claiming that art need be ethical, moral, or didactic have never gone away. Novelist and critic John Gardner perhaps put it most bluntly in his 1978 book On Moral Fiction, in which he baldly states, “Nothing could be more obvious, it seems to me, than that art should be moral and that the first business of criticism, at least some of the time, should be to judge works of literature (or painting or even music) on grounds of the production’s moral worth.” (The hedging apposite clause – “at least some of the time” – is a strong indication that Gardner himself remained ultimately unconvinced of the blanket truth of his assertion.) Although less dogmatic and much more nuanced, Wayne C. Booth, in his study The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, also champions the idea that books should serve an ethical or moral purpose for their readers: “The fact that no narrative will be good or bad for all readers in all circumstances need not hinder us in our effort to discover what is good or bad for us in our condition here and now” (emphasis in original), with the implicit corollary that we should elevate the “good” and avoid or disavow the “bad.”

Strains of Gardner and Booth could be detected as recently as last week, when the 2012 Man Booker Prize jury announced its shortlist. While he admitted that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates” among the jurors, this year’s chair of judges, Peter Stothard, went on to comment that he and his fellow jurors were “exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values” of the nominated books.

In brief, “vividly defined values” seems like a strange criterion on which to base an assessment of literary worth. The language is vague and imprecise, but let us assume for the sake of argument that the word “values” is not confined merely to the literary sphere, but contains within it some moral imperative. The obvious questions then arise. Whose values are we referring to? From what realm do they spring? Are they moral values? Philosophical values? Political values? Theological values?

Then we must consider the question from the perspective of the writer. What is a writer’s responsibility, to herself and to her readers? Is she responsible for promoting a particular ethical or societal code, or is she responsible merely to the work of art? If we admit that one of the functions of literature is to be truthful to the world as the writer finds it, how is it possible to insist on some moral imperative in art given the evident immorality that surrounds most of us, most of the time? Is the function of art to better its recipients, or is it simply to present, in the kind of scientific manner Zola advocated, an accurate literary representation of a time and place?

It is obvious that evil occasionally triumphs in the world; why should it not also be allowed to triumph in works of literature? (It might be useful to remember that John Milton was roundly excoriated for making Lucifer the central figure of Paradise Lost.) Think of the great moral, virtuous, upstanding novel in the English language: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Now try to imagine an entire literature informed by it. The mind positively reels.

No doubt there are many, even today, who would argue that the function of art is to better humanity. And it seems to be true that those who expose themselves to artistic works are more tolerant and expansive than those who don’t. It is also true that one must take care about what one exposes oneself to in a literary context: much more benefit will be gleaned from reading Zola and Dostoevsky (who were, it should be pointed out, both highly moral writers) than, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

However, the idea that literature must be affirming in order to be worthwhile does not follow.

Sense of a happy ending for Barnes

October 19, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

“I didn’t want to go to my grave and get a Beryl,” said Julian Barnes yesterday, after accepting the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. After three previous kicks at the can (Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur and George), Barnes can now rest easy, knowing that he does not share the fate of his late compatriot, Beryl Bainbridge, who was nominated for the lucrative literary award five times and never won. Bainbridge was “honoured” posthumously by a “Best of Beryl” award, given to a title selected from a shortlist of the author’s previously nominated books. (Chosen by the public, the winner was Master Georgie.)

“Beryl was a very gracious non-winner,” said Ion Trewin, who administers the Man Booker Prize. The same could not always have been said about Barnes, who once referred to the prize as “posh bingo.” Although Barnes claims his view of the prize has not changed, he told the Guardian that winning the award was an indication this year’s jury were “the wisest heads in literary Christendom.”

Not everyone shares Barnes’s high opinion of this year’s jury. The 2011 Booker shortlist created quite a stir among British literature aficionados for being too populist in spirit and composition. Sarah Crown, for example, pointed to what she called the “unBookerishness” of this year’s shortlisted titles:

Where last year we had Damon Galgut’s auto-fictive travel-novel, In a Strange Room, and Tom McCarthy’s post-structuralist, anti-humanist discourse on language and technology, C, this year, we have a Moscow murder mystery, an offbeat Western and a novel featuring a talking pigeon.

And this, it seems, was absolutely the plan. On announcing the shortlist, chair of judges Dame Stella Rimington said “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books.” Fellow-judge Chris Mullin echoed the sentiment, saying “What people said to me when it was announced I would be on the judging panel was, ‘I hope you choose something readable this year.’ That for me was such a big factor. They had to zip along.”

From a purely economic standpoint, it would appear that Dame Stella and her fellow jurors have discovered a winning formula: this year’s crop of Booker shortlisters is the highest-selling group in the prize’s history, with that Moscow murder mystery, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops, the undisputed heavyweight at the cash register.

Begging to differ, however, is Jeanette Winterson, who took the opportunity to reiterate her objection to what she calls “printed television.” In a piece for the Guardian, Winterson, an unabashed advocate of challenging writing, lays out the case for literature that is more concerned with language than with plot or setting:

Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.

The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. James Joyce is hard work. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read. Schools teach language-friendly versions of Shakespeare.

Ali Smith’s There But For The is a wonderful, word-playful novel, ignored by the judges this year because it doesn’t fit their idea of “readable.” It is better than anything on their list. Why? It expands what language can do and what fiction can do, and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective. That is what literature is supposed to do.

Winterson’s test for what constitutes literature – “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?” – seems like a good one, but it’s also notable, in the excerpt above, that she chooses to put the word “readable” in quotation marks.* The wholesale separation of writing that is challenging and writing that is readable seems a false dichotomy. I could answer Winterson’s question in the affirmative about any number of books that are – in my opinion, at least – compulsively readable. This is one reason (among several) I was a bit taken aback when Rabindranath Maharaj, one of the jurors for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, suggested that the authors shortlisted for that prize are “innovative in the sense that their books are more accessible – it’s more reader-friendly in many ways.” Novels that are “reader-friendly” are not necessarily the same as novels that are easy or facile, which is the suggestion too often floated in these discussions. (Indeed, Winterson points out that the most “unreadable” novels she’s encountered recently are Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.)

Julian Barnes, for instance, has a history of writing books that I consider very “reader-friendly,” yet they are also challenging works of literature. Now that he’s finally been honoured by the Man Booker Prize, I suppose I should get down to reading his latest.

*Sorry, Winterson’s British: inverted commas.