Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist Feelings

The filter on this photo is oddly pale.


Initial thoughts:

Very little of this is surprising, and very few of these authors are new. I think the only debuts are Emily Fridlund, Fiona Mozley, and (technically) George Saunders, since it’s his first novel, although I’m inclined to say that doesn’t exactly make him a debut author. On the one hand, this pleases me – I’ve been bitching for years about how publishers fetishize novelty, and about how dangerous it is to cease supporting novelists once they’ve written their Big First Book or are no longer as photogenic as the next young thing. On the other hand, this makes for a list that, despite Baroness Young’s proclamations of its diversity, doesn’t look particularly diverse to me. There are a lot of big, established names – Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Sebastian Barry – and only a handful of authors that you might imagine the general public not recognising.

Thematically, there seems to be a strong focus on social issues: slavery and its repercussions, political repression, neo-liberalism, celebrity charity, the refugee crisis. Personal relationships are also at the heart of many of these books: Barry’s soldier-lovers in Days Without End, McGregor’s traumatised villagers in Reservoir 13, an old man and a young woman in Ali Smith’s Autumn, Zadie Smith’s rivalrous dancers. In terms of formal experimentation, the field seems decidedly conservative, with Saunders, Auster and McGregor the most obviously innovative. (Mozley might be interesting, too, but as no one seems to know much about it, it’s hard to say yet.)

What I’ve read:

Of the longlisted thirteen, I’ve read six: Days Without End, Reservoir 13, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Lincoln In the Bardo, Swing Time and The Underground Railroad. At least four are strong contenders to be among my books of the year, although I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness more ambitious than successful, and liked Swing Time a lot without thinking it a work of genius.

What’s missing:

More big names, although in honesty this is probably the right decision; Salman Rushdie seems to me to have been curdling for some time now, and The Golden House looks depressingly like another of those let’s-mock-Trump novels that writers seem to think are appropriate stand-ins for actual social engagement. Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing also deserves to have been left off; the first few pages read like an aggressive Roth parody, which is not a compliment. I’m slightly surprised by the exclusion of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand, which is a very skilful piece of writing in the way it balances a wide range of emotions; Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which if nothing else is balls-to-the-wall committed to its own zaniness; Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which I actually wouldn’t have put on the longlist anyway but which does have legions of devoted fans and is a pretty good book; and House of Names by Colm Toibin. The Nix, Christodora, First Love, The Power, English Animals, and Spoils were also strong contenders that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see on the list.

What shouldn’t be there:

Harsh, I know. Maybe this is better phrased as “what surprises me by its presence”. As Baroness Young also pointed out, every book is the result of vast amounts of time and effort and dedication and sweat and tears. At the same time, if this is meant to be a list of thirteen of the year’s best books, I’m not sure why The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is on it. As a piece of fiction, it’s so unmoored, so unclear about which stories it wants us to care about, that I found its ultimate effect was to alienate me from any of them.

What I’d like to read:

Of those I haven’t read, Solar Bones, History of Wolves, Exit West and Autumn are immediately appealing. We’ve also been offered proofs of Elmet from the publisher, which I’m very excited about (the author is a bookseller at Little Apple in York! How great is that?) I might be more thrilled by the prospect of 4321 if it weren’t about seven thousand pages long and still only available in hardback. Mais non, my friends. On the basis of available time and wrist strength, non.

The full list:

4321 by Paul Auster

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (my full review)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (my full review)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (scroll down for June Superlatives entry)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Autumn by Ali Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (scroll down for January Superlatives entry)

14 thoughts on “Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist Feelings

  1. Thanks for this really interesting round-up. I agree with you about the big names, but it was so nice to see a list where I’d already read five of the contenders – both Smiths, McGregor, Whitehead and Barry (usually I’ve only ever read one or two of the Booker longlist). I absolutely adored Swing Time & feel it’s been unfairly overlooked thus far, so was so relieved to see it there – and you know I wasn’t a fan of this particular McGregor! I’ve also found Ali Smith patchy for a while now (though I love her best work) and wasn’t keen on Autumn at all. Whitehead and Barry are certainly worthy contenders, though.

    I don’t know if I’ll be trying to read the whole longlist, but I already have Saunders on my Kindle, and am similarly intrigued by McCormack and Mozley (& by Mozley’s PhD topic, which sounds fascinating!)

    1. I have to say that I also wasn’t rushing to pick up Autumn – not sure why. Saunders I would highly recommend; at present he and McGregor are my two favourites to win the whole thing. (Loved Barry, too, but he’s had the Costa already, dammit. And I know that’s not how prizes should work, but.)

      (I just looked up Fiona Mozley’s PhD topic and now I’m like LET’S CHAT, GIRLFRIEND, AND ALSO LET ME READ YOUR NOVEL IMMEDIATELY)

  2. Well done for putting this together so quickly! I’ve also read six, though a slightly different selection from you. I’m lukewarm on some of the books others have loved (the Smiths and Whitehead) and have pretty much zero interest in three of the other titles. Much as I’d like to try something by Auster, it’s not going to be this particular book (and yes, the length has something to do with it!). The book I’m most keen to get hold of is “Elmet”, and I’ll be prioritising McGregor’s on my Kindle. I may also try to read the Shamsie before the shortlist announcement.

    Meanwhile, I can highly recommend History of Wolves to you. (I reviewed it for TLS.)

  3. I’ve only read Swing Time, Exit West and The Underground Railroad from the longlist, of which the last is my favourite. I’ll be trying to read the rest in the next few months, but your post has made me think I might swerve a few (I too object to books so big they’ll cause wrist injuries – it’s why I’ve still not finished Barkskins). I’m surprised there’s no crossover with the Baileys Prize list, unless I’ve misunderstood the eligibility dates. I didn’t understand why Homegoing wasn’t longlisted for that and I’m surprised it’s not on the Booker list either.

    1. Yes, in a technical sense I agree they’ve done ok. Still very surprised not to see any Australian or African writers, though, and the generally big-name feel of the list makes me think of it as being less diverse than it really is.

  4. Love all your comments.The list does seem rather safe for the most part. I’ve only read one of them which was 4 3 2 1 and as you know I’m an Auster-fan and I did love it. The one i’ve extricated from my TBR to read first of the others is Solar Bones.

      1. I read its 880 pages in four chunks of 200-250 pages at a time with a few days between. Its structure lends itself to that. I’m a reasonably fast reader, so I guess it took around 15hrs total.

      2. Righto! I’m rereading Quicksilver just now and my guess is it’ll take me three and a half days, so the Auster measures up favourably.

  5. I was surprised by the number of big names on there as I was hoping to make a new discovery of His Bloody Project which I really enjoyed last year. But I agree with your point about the industry focusing too much on debut novels so it is also good to see more established authors on there in that respect.

    1. Yeah, it’s one of those things that I suspect I’d be complaining about either way! Hopefully the exposure will be good for Fiona Mozley, though, at the very least.

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