Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist Feelings

bookstack

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)

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Man Booker Longlist Feelings

It will loom over you from now until late September, get used to it

So, they’ve announced the Man Booker Prize Longlist for 2015! Those of us who like having the order and discipline of lists in our lives are quite excited by this, and, having glanced at it, I have to say it does make me slightly more hopeful than last year’s did. Firstly, the nationality breakdown is fairly heartening. Yes, there are more Americans than any other nationality, but there are three Brits represented, and one writer each from New Zealand, Ireland, India, Nigeria and Jamaica. As for the gender balance, that too is heartening; seven women on a list of thirteen is pretty good going, even for a contemporary prize.

  • Bill Clegg is the only one that I’ve genuinely never heard of (which is unsurprising, as this is his debut novel–he is, however, a hotshot agent in his own right). His book about a fire and familial secrets/trauma is Did You Ever Have A Family.
  • I have read Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007–I was about fourteen, which may have been too young to fully appreciate the virtues of a novel about child abuse in an Irish Catholic family, but I do wonder whether The Green Road will be too similar–it’s billed as an Irish family saga.
  • Marlon James is already high on my list of Authors To Read More Of: I read The Book of Night Women, about a Jamaican slave rebellion, in November, and was utterly bowled over. A Brief History of Seven Killings is one I’ll be looking to read.
  • I know next to nothing about Laila Lalami, although The Moor’s Account sounds amazing: an account of the exploits of the conquistadors, as told by one of their Moroccan slaves.
  • Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island struck me as almost unbearably precious when it first came out; a sort of wannabe David Foster Wallace-type meta-novel. I’m sure it’s very clever and probably reasonably well-judged, but I just don’t want it to win at all.
  • The Fishermen, by Chigoizie Obioma, is published by Pushkin Press, of which I am very fond, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. Hopefully, I can get hold of a copy to review soon.
  • Andrew O’Hagan is one of those authors whom I think I’ve read, but I haven’t. The catalogue copy for The Illuminations made it seem as though it could go either way (war, dual plot strands, memory, photography, etc.), but perhaps it’s worth a punt?
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson has been a contender since it was published last year. Everything Marilynne Robinson writes is a contender for something. I must read this.
  • Anuradha Roy is, again, an author about whom I know nothing, though the Guardian did a fascinating podcast about Sleeping on Jupiter a while back. More heavy child-abuse themes, this time with an Indian religious flavor instead of an Irish one…
  • Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways looked promising in catalogue: the story of thirteen young Indian immigrants living in a house in Sheffield, looking for new lives. The blurb is full of effulgent comments about how it celebrates the dignity of the human spirit, which makes me wary, but it could be true!
  • Anna Smaill’s The Chimes has been on my radar for a while, ever since Naomi tapped it for the Baileys Prize. It’s about a world where music replaces memory, and as a part-time musician with some interest in neurology and a lot of interest in identity, I think I’d probably enjoy it a great deal.
  • Anne Tyler, on the other hand, has never really piqued my interest, and A Spool of Blue Thread being nominated for both the Baileys and the Booker confuses me, because its premise seems intensely boring, like a rehash of The Corrections. But maybe it’s brilliant?
  • And, finally, Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life. I knew I wanted to read this before the nomination, but now it’s a dead cert. Described as “the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season […a]n epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light”, it looks superb.

You know what I can’t get over, though? The exclusion of Station Eleven and The Wolf Border, and of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, and also I’m a little bit surprised that The Buried Giant didn’t AT LEAST make the long list. But primarily I’m upset by the absence of The Wolf Border. Why don’t prize committees get it? Why don’t they see how revolutionary this book is, how casually it hurls narrative conventions about women and men and relationships out of the window? Why don’t they love its descriptions of Cumbria, its fells and lakes and green villages, and of Idaho’s dark and snowy roads, the way I do? Sigh.*

*(Because the way I feel about The Wolf Border is TRUE LOVE, that’s why. And prize committees are not in the business of fomenting true love, necessarily. It still disappoints me.)

Anyone read any of the books on this long list? Anyone have particular favorites? Anyone else disappointed not to see something on the list?