Britain's biggest literary prize has gone global, but domestic talent still dominates with David Mitchell, Ali Smith and Howard Jacobson all in the runningby / July 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
This is, of course, the first year of the global Booker. Until now, the prize has been limited to writers from all Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries. From now on, any novel written in English within the allotted timeframe will be eligible. When this news was announced last autumn, it was predictably met with alarm and despair by many British writers and publishers, who feared an invasion from across the Atlantic. (Although not everyone was so worried.)
This year’s longlist will soothe some of the doubters. AC Grayling’s team of judges have been careful not to turn the list into an all-American parade. (Is it purely coincidental that British authors still make up the majority, leading 6-5 over the Americans?) A couple of the American novels that made this year’s list are themselves surprises. Both Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and Orfeo by Richard Powers received mixed reviews—while more loudly hoorahed books, such as Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, failed to make the cut. (Next year may be less kind to British authors, when new novels by big beasts such as Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson and Toni Morrison will all be eligible.)
Booker regulars Howard Jacobson, Ali Smith and David Mitchell are present and correct, but there are a number of less well known authors, such as Paul Kingsnorth and Neel Mukherjee, who will benefit most from the attention the Man Booker inevitably brings. Publishers may also be keen to rush out the five books on the longlist that are currently scheduled to hit shops in August or September. (Look out for reviews of novels by Joseph O’Neill, Ali Smith and David Mitchell in future issues of Prospect.)
One of the pleasures of literary prizes is the opportunity for some serious whatabouting, with readers and critics enjoying the chance to complain that their favourite book was scandalously overlooked. This year’s list provides ample opportunities. Along with Dept. of Speculation, I’d have liked to have seen EL Doctorow’s admirably weird Andrew’s Brain make the list. Philip Hensher’s ambitious new novel also seems like a surprising omission—although it is one that the 2015 Folio Prize might correct. The inclusion of the new novel by David Nicholls, author of the unstoppable commercial juggernaut One Day, may also raise a few highbrows even higher. It is a relief, at least, that The Goldfinch did not make the cut, thereby sparing us another wave of think pieces about the success of The Goldfinch and what it means for the fate of literature in the 21st century.
Does any of this matter? I’m hard pressed to disagree with Lionel Shriver’s recent assessment of our prize culture: “In the main, literary awards lend small-pond drama to an occupation whose daily pursuit is dull. They provide the year with a more mountainous topography, otherwise a dreary plain. They sell a few copies, and supply the industry bursts of publicity.” They are, essentially, harmless fun.
In that spirit, when longlists are announced, it is important for critics to make what later turn out to be embarrassingly misguided predictions about the shortlist. Here is what I will be betting on:
Ali Smith – How to Both
Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World
David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks
Joseph O’Neill – The Dog
Niall Williams – History of the Rain