When the Man Booker Shortlist was announced, I had read six books from the Longlist and was half way through a seventh. I’d hoped to have read all thirteen, but some had fairly late publication dates, Edinburgh City Libraries didn’t have all of them in stock, and even though I reserved all the ones they did have on the day the Longlist was announced, I still ended up waiting over a month for them. Still, I think fifty percent is a fairly good proportion, especially since of the eight I’d begun, four made it onto the short list.
As a quick introduction for those that don’t know, or are unclear, the Man Booker Prize is awarded yearly to the ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’. The criteria for inclusion are that the book must have been originally published in the English language, by an author with citizenship in one of the Commonwealth realms or the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe.
The Commonwealth of Nations currently covers nearly a quarter of the world’s land area across five of the six inhabited continents and is home to almost a third of the global population. However despite this opportunity for diversity, you only need to look at the list of winners to see that actually, the award isn’t as egalitarian as it should be. To be fair, simply taking nationalities can be misleading, V.S. Naipaul and Kazuo Ishiguro are UK citizens despite having Indian and Japanese heritage respectively, but on the whole, most of the winners have been either from the UK, Ireland or are of white authors from Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Even the only South African winners, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee are of European descent. In contrast, there are four winners are identified as being from India (not including Naipaul), none from Pakistan, none from Bangladesh, and only one from Nigeria.
The gender imbalance is also quite stark, only 16 women have won, (though admittedly, Hilary Mantel has won twice), though this at least has been improving recently, four of the last ten prizes have gone to women. It’s still not great though, so on both fronts there is still a lot of ground to be made up.
This year’s Longlist was highly praised at the time of its release for its variety. Of the thirteen nominees, seven were women (just under 50%) and only a handful of the authors were British. Don’t get me wrong, the largest body of authors was white men, but we also have the first Black African woman writer (NoViolet Bulawayo), the first Buddhist Nun (Ruth Ozeki), and the first Malaysian nominee (Tash Aw).
I’ve already posted my reviews for four of the nominated books, and the other three will be forthcoming over the next few days. As I was writing the above paragraphs on diversity, it did occur to me that the books I have reviewed, cover the white male side of the Longlist pretty definitively, the only one I’ve missed being Richard House’s The Kills. That wasn’t intentional, simply the luck of the draw.
So, what do I think about the Shortlist? Firstly, let me talk about the books that didn’t make it. On the whole, of the books I’ve read, I’m satisfied. As I said in my reviews, I didn’t think that The Spinning Heart or TransAtlantic were strong enough books to actually win the prize, and while I do think they deserved recognition, simply being on the Longlist has done that. The other one I’ve read that didn’t make it, which I haven’t yet reviewed, Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, I’m glad frankly was left out. I don’t want to end up repeating myself too much when I come to review it, but in short, I just don’t think it was a good enough book to even make the Longlist.
So onto the books that did. This is more difficult to assess, because I don’t know what the competition is like, but I am in two minds. First let me say that despite the praise I gave Harvest, I’m a little offended by the fact that it is apparently the bookmakers favourite. Firstly, why do bookmakers even have a favourite? What are they basing this on? But second of all, it just feels like they’ve look at the authors on the Shortlist, seen the two that best fit the archetypal Booker winner, written off Colm Toíbín because The Testament of Mary is too short, and said “Jim Crace is going to win.”
But at the same time, now that the list has been revealed, I do think he has the best chance, so does that make me a hypocrite? The Testament of Mary is too short, A Tale for the Time Being was really not that good (better than Five Star Billionaire, but I just couldn’t get into it), and well… We Need New Names… I am going to write a long post detailing all the issues that I have with NoViolet Bulawayo’s book tomorrow, however, I do think that it deserved to make the Longlist, simply because it is not a safe choice, and as that is an accusation thrown at the Booker Prize relatively often, I think that by stepping outside of their comfort zone into the honestly distressing world Bulawayo has depicted, the Booker Committee have shown themselves to be relevant.
That just leaves The Luminaries and The Lowland. The former has been given a lot of praise, on the internet, more than any of the other nominees I think, and the latter is written by a former Pulitzer winner. So either of these could win. I’m not going to be able to finish them before the end of my year, but I’m going to try to read them before the 15th of October (and don’t worry, I will review them!), at which point I’ll give my final assessment as to which I think will win.
In summary, when the 2013 Longlist was published in July, it had a lot of potential to be a ground-breaking year for the Man Booker Prize. The shortlist has actually diminished this potential I think, and the way the final six books are being talked about in the media corroborates this. However, I’m still hoping that the Committee (which I’ve not discussed, but is made up of entirely of journalists and academics) will not simply choose the easy option, or even the controversial option, but legitimately ‘the best novel in [their] opinion’.