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The golden stickers

The Man Booker formula: a marriage of culture and capital

By Luke Neima  

It is a shame that the more innovative books on the longlist, such as The Kills by Richard House, did not make the final cut

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is now in its 45th year, and the marriage of capital and culture has never found a better home than amongst its ever-unfurling lists, press releases and prizes. For every nod, nomination and golden sticker, press budgets double, reviews triple and sales skyrocket. Every autumn novelists and publicists hold hands, praying and then rejoicing in the ensuing confetti of receipts. Eventually the judges smile and wave off the £50,000 prize, knowing that the truest symbol of merit is the increase in profits that accompanies every award.

I don’t mean to suggest that the books selected are without literary merit—it would be hard to compile a set of sentences more perfectly polished, or narrators more determined in their hounding after affect, than those on today’s shortlist. This year’s shortlist may also be the most geographically comprehensive yet—authors from Canada, New Zealand, England, Ireland and Zimbabwe write about the biblical Middle East (Colm Tóibín), Zimbabwe (NoViolet Bulawayo), 19th century New Zealand (Catton), 1960s India (Jhumpha Lahiri), 18th-century rural England (Jim Crace) and modern Tokyo (Ruth Ozeki). But for all this geographical diversity the selection offers few surprises to its intended readership—“the intelligent general audience.”

A prize like the Booker, though, isn’t about surprises. As any intelligent, general member of the audience knows, you could have compiled the same six names this morning, give or take one or two, by having a look at the odds on offer from Ladbrokes and William Hill. The oddities in the longlist, like Richard House’s thousand-page multipedia novel, The Kills, have been neatly pared away.

It is hard to deny that the more successful authors on the list, Jim Crace and Colm Tóibín, deserve recognition for their work. Still, I can’t help hoping that this year’s panel will end up crowning something a little less trade-friendly, something slightly more surprising. Two books in particular could fill this role: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that challenges the limits of traditional chronological narratives; and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, the events of which were painstakingly plotted out according to a set of historically-accurate astrological charts.

Last year’s winner, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, seems to encapsulate what the Booker is all about. That novel goes as far in the direction of the literary as possible, while still retaining the capacity to top the UK fiction charts. In addition to being a big seller, the book was also a record-breaker—Hilary Mantel is the first female novelist to win the Booker twice, and her Thomas Cromwell trilogy (the third is on its way) is the only sequence of books to win multiple Bookers. This year, another record threatens to be broken. At 31 years old, Ben Okri is the youngest person to win the Booker Prize. Eleanor Catton is 28. If the media appeal of breaking records is anywhere near as important to the prize as trade credentials, there may yet be a surprise from this year’s judges.

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