The Eds discuss… the Man Booker longlist and literary prizes in general

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By the Shiny New Books Editors

The four SNB Editors had a round robin e-mail discussion about our reactions to the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist going around the team several times.  But before that, just in case you haven’t seen it or you need a reminder – here is the longlist, with links to those books we have reviewed. Please do join in the discussion by leaving your comments too…

Man Booker Prize longlist 2014

Gut reaction?

A: In a nutshell – not overly excited.
V: Looks an average sort of list – several big names you might expect to see there are missing, but then there aren’t any authors I’ve never heard of.
H: I was surprised not to find any of the books I’d expected to see on there. I was rooting for The Goldfinch!
S: I’m quite pleased to have heard of some of the authors! It does seem very mainstream-literary-male heavy, though.

Have you read any of them?

A: The Ferris – I was going to review it for Shiny, but couldn’t finish it. The writing was good, but the plot bored me.
V: No, unsurprisingly. I think I read a lot, and yet this longlist rarely has books on it I’ve read.
H: No. But I tend not to read a lot of newly published fiction anyway.
S: Oh, of course not! I never have. [Note: this was written before I read and reviewed Karen Joy Fowler’s novel.]

Which books did you think were missing?

S: I was hoping to see Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, but after it got shunned on the Bailey’s Prize longlist, I wasn’t all that surprised about its absence here. I was surprised not to see Ian McEwan (I thought every book he wrote ended up on these longlists?) or Donna Tartt, but I haven’t read those books, so…
A: I would have been overjoyed to see Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman there, or Nicola Barker’s latest.
H: As I said above, I was expecting The Goldfinch but also would have really liked to see Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which I thought a really remarkably good novel. Oh well…
V. I had to think about this for a while, but it would have been a more interesting list with Kamila Shamsie, Monique Roffey or Michelle Lovric on it.

Which books, if any, do you want to read?

A: I would read the Hustvedt and Karen Joy Fowler anyway.  I’m intrigued by the crowd-funded Kingsnorth, and ever the populist – I’m sure I’ll read David Nicholls.
V: Definitely the Karen Joy Fowler and Siri Hustvedt and Ali Smith.
H: I’m keen to read the David Mitchell, and I really like Ali Smith. Nothing else has grabbed me so far, but I might change my mind.
S: I’ve amazed myself by having read books by three of these authors (Fowler, Jacobson, Nicholls) but the only one I would revisit is  Nicholls.

Americans vs The Commonwealth – Do you think the publishers loaded their submissions with Americans to test the waters?

A: The Booker has such a good history of Commonwealth authors winning, it’s a real shame that there’s not the balance between nationalities this year. I expect the submissions were loaded with American authors.
V: I think this is a purely commercial decision because the American market is so huge. Not that Americans don’t write fantastic books, of course they do. But I’m sorry to see the Commonwealth so poorly represented. Those books concerning subjects perceived to be more ‘difficult’ need the publicity.
H: I agree with Victoria about it being a commercial decision, I’m afraid, sad though this is. And I am vey sad not to see any Commonwealth authors on there – this has been such a strength of the Booker in the past.
S: I suppose they sent their bestsellers? Like everyone else, I wish the longlist were more diverse – but perhaps more in terms of style/experiment/form than nationality. As I’ve not read these books, I probably shouldn’t judge, but from what I’ve heard they largely seem standard literary-but-not-daring Booker-winning-type novels.
 The Kingsnorth certainly is daring – I looked at it in a bookshop thinking, ‘I loved the regressed language in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, can I manage this?’  but it is very Old English and quite long and will need concentration, so I’m sitting on the fence on whether I’ll read it or not.

Should all the books be published when the longlist is announced?

A: Definitely – I feel that’s a fundamental flaw of the prize. How can they hope for engagement from the public when the books aren’t available? According to the rules, “Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist.” – at the time of writing that’s not going to happen is it?
V: Yes! It feels like a decision that excludes the reading public.
H: Absolutely! I was really surprised and shocked when I realised this, and can’t see how they can justify moving the goalposts this way.
S: We’re all agreed on this one!

So, which might make the shortlist?

A: To be honest, I haven’t the foggiest, nor do I care that much.
V: I’m never very good at guessing!
H: No idea – when I’ve tried to guess in the past I’ve always got it wrong.
S: Well, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast! Despite not having read any of them, I’m going to plump for Ali Smith winning. There will be one big name that doesn’t make it through (Joshua Ferris, why not?) and a debut that comes perilously close to winning (Paul Kingsnorth).

Book Prizes in general – Which do you follow if any?

A: I think literature prizes have to be a good thing, but the ones that I find more interesting are more niche (doesn’t that sound pretentious!).  I mean the The Desmond Eliot prize for debut novelists, the Costas for all the different categories etc. the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prizes – I like that there are eight winners in that one.  I guess I particularly like prizes that don’t necessarily celebrate the literary establishment.
V: I’m in favour of book prizes for sure. I seem only ever to follow the well-known ones, the Booker, the Costa, the Bailey’s, the Samuel Johnson. I never seem to be in the right places to hear about the more niche ones. Annabel will have to steer me towards them!
H: The main value of book prizes for me – apart from pleasure that the author is getting a nice boost, financially and to their reputation – is that they do draw my attention to books I might have passed by. Like Victoria I am not well up in the niche ones, though.
S: None at all, I’m afraid! My engagement with newly published books has gone up in leaps and bounds since joining the Shiny New Books team, but my heart still lies in the past…
A: So maybe there’s room for a reprints publishing prize of some sort Simon?
S: Lovely idea! I like it when they’ve done historical Man Bookers (they did it for 1970), but a reprints prize is a fantastic idea.
A: The Shiny New Old Books Prize?  Tee hee!

What do we think about the gender imbalance?

V: I think it’s too marked to be comfortable this year. There’s 13 books on this list – that’s plenty to make sure there’s a good range of titles represented. See, judging books is SO subjective that at this stage, I feel the longlist should make sure it covers a wide variety of geographical locations, subjects, forms, and that both genders and ethnicities should be well represented. There are enough great books out there to choose from.
H: This is such a tricky one, isn’t it. It’s very marked this year, certainly – but if the panel genuinely believed that these books represent the best of what’s out there, would we want them to skew the list for the sake of positive discrimination?  Mind you the panel is four men to two women – could that have made a difference?
S: This was the first thing I spotted. I know that it’s the obvious thing to talk about, but… I agree with Victoria. I’m not so sure about Harriet’s comment – do men tend to prefer books by men? I wonder, instead, if publishers simply submitted more?
A: In picking what I read, I don’t consider gender, so I will give the judges the benefit of doubt on this one, although Victoria does have a good point.  Like Simon though I wonder what was submitted,
H: I actually think that as far as the general reading public is concerned, men tend to be drawn to books by male authors. I suppose one could hope the panel was above this, but I’m not entirely sure.

Does an award make you keener to read a novel?

V: Not necessarily, but it does make it more likely I’ll hear about a novel, and therefore have the opportunity to consider reading it. So many books are out there competing for attention; prizes bring publicity. That’s one of their most useful functions, I think.
H: Yes I think it sometimes does, but I guess that is partly because otherwise it might have passed me by. However I did have a phase of deliberately reading some past winners or shortlisted books, many of which I might not have read if they hadn’t been listed.
S: Being honest, it’s the reverse. I’ve read so many prizewinning duds that I tend to steer clear. But I do get interested by the longlisted books that fall off at the longlist-to-shortlist stage. That’s where the interesting, unusual, non-literary-mainstream books seem to live.
A: I don’t read prize-winning books for the sake of it – I must be one of the few never to have read Life of Pi. I love Simon’s comment about the books that don’t make the shortlist – that’s a fascinating insight.
H: I haven’t read it either, Annabel!
S: Nor I! Oh dear…

Do we think that prizes highlight the ‘best’ books?

V: I think they highlight a selection of them. Which is why it seems important to me that they represent a wide variety of voices. However, I do think that prizes are very much at the mercy of fashion and cultural ideology. What’s deemed good writing changes over time, and I think that one year’s longlist is often swayed by the responses to the previous year’s. There’s regular outcry at shortlists but very little thoughtful consideration of the pressures that are exerted on the judges and the prejudices they inevitably succumb to.
H: I don’t think they necessarily do. It will all depend on the tastes and inclinations of the panel, and I’m sure every year there must be some great books that have not got longlisted, and others which have will come to seem pretty unlikely candidates.
S: My co-editors have very balanced responses! I tend to think the Man Booker is very good at finding the most Man Booker book. That is, the sort of book that is a little overwritten, moderately ambitious, formally uncontroversial, often issue-driven, and preferably sad. (Having said that, The Finkler Question was supposed to be a comedy novel, and I thought it was pretty poor!)
A: I think they highlight a selection of good books. Each prize is a snapshot of its judges’ views that year so they’ll change a bit each year.  I agree with Simon that the Man Booker attracts a certain kind of book – at least up until now.
H: I don’t think Simon likes the Booker very much! I can think of some past winners that don’t conform the these very depressing-sounding categories. I really liked last year’s winner, The Luminaries,  and Wolf Hall from 2009, for example.
S: You’ve got me, Harriet! I’m not a big fan… but perhaps this year I will be surprised.

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Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Victoria are the Shiny New Books Editors.