Battlefield Booker: Controversies That Do And Don't Count

on Monday, July 29, 2013
A week on and the dust has settled on this year's Booker Long List announcement. For the most part, it has been well received but, as always, there has been the odd grumble about what was (and wasn't) on the list. In usual Bookworm style, I'll just weigh in where I'm not wanted.

The Sour Grapes Of Wrath
So your favourite author missed out? Boo hoo. So did mine. Not that I expected J. M. Coetzee to really get a look in with his decent but nowhere-near-as-good-as-his-early-stuff The Childhood of Jesus. Sure, I still long for my favourite living author to pull the first Booker hat trick, but if there's one thing I hate more than missing out it's someone getting a gold watch award (you listening John Banville?). I suspect that is exactly what Margaret Attwood was pinning her hopes on for Maddaddam, the final instalment in her fascinating Oryx and Crake trilogy. I'd have loved to see a sci-fi novel take the gong but, future time machine acrobatics notwithstanding, it was never going to happen. At least she it won aeons ago for The Blind Assassin.

Lots more whinging abounds with the passing over of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Roddy Doyle (following up The Commitments sans soundtrack), David Peace, and two very well-received novels in Nadeem Aslam's The Blind Man's Garden and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (will she ever be taken seriously by the establishment?). If you're gunning for any of these, don't fret. You can still rush down to your local bookie and place a few dollars/pounds/shekels on The Folio Prize. As Boyd Tonkin, observed in The Independent, the Folio judges have "a banquet of Booker absentees to consider."

Is The Testament Of Mary A Novel?
It is the question that pops up every few years: How long must a book be to qualify as a novel? When Ian McEwan won for Amsterdam, the curmudgeons in the audience choked on their cigars. The bloody thing came in at under two hundred pages. We all know, however, that it was the consolation Booker, given to assuage a country's collective guilt that the poor guy hadn't won it for the infinitely greater Enduring Love. Ergo, we all forgave him pretty quickly. Then the smug prick had the audacity to do it again with On Chesil Beach only this time he had upped the ante. That books was only one hundred and sixty six pages. Thankfully, we needn't have worried. Nobody is allowed two consolation Bookers, even if Atonement probably should have won five years beforehand. Then again, perhaps he shot himself in the foot with the atrocious Saturday, a book that sat between the other two works like a barbed wire enema.

The novella really came into its own when Julian Barnes pipped a shortlist of bargain bin wannabes with The Sense Of An Ending. At only one hundred and sixty pages, it had encyclopaedia buffs up in arms. I, on the other hand, loved it. Indeed, in a year of spectacular ordinariness (thanks Stella Rimington), it was the only book that could have won if the Booker wasn't about to be turned into a joke. It also must have given hope to Donal Ryan who is long listed this year for the equally brief The Spinning Heart. Not that anyone is on his back about it. The Booker virgin has been trumped by serial list-humper Colm Toibin, who's The Testament of Mary is only one hundred and twelve pages. In other words, you can read it on the toilet without anyone thinking you've fallen in. Personally, I don't see what the fuss is about. Mary is a fully realised, brilliantly executed piece of fiction, wider in scope and deeper of heart than at least a third of the other long listed works. I didn't close it and think, "Nice short story, Colm." Sure, it isn't Proust, but would you question the value of Camus's The Stranger (128 pages) or Orwell's Animal Farm (125 pages)? And how long is a piece of string exactly?

For That Matter is The Kills A Novel?
The novella controversy has been eclipsed by a much more modern concern: Can an exercise in multimedia reading constitute a novel? Richard House's The Kills is testing the boundaries of contemporary fiction (in the Booker sense). Not only is it really four books in one - its thousand-odd pages are made up of four separate novels - but it continuously guides the reader to online content that isn't in the physical book. The judging panel have said that they will only be looking at what's between the covers but that seems to be doing the work an injustice. Make up your mind team Booker. Either you accept multimedia and judge the book as a whole or you make some archaic decision to ban works that rely on online content (as opposed to online stuff that is essentially just promo). Perhaps The Kills is just the toe-in-the-water, setting some precedent for a not-too-distant future in which online content will be a common part of the literary landscape.

When Did The Commonwealth Reclaim America?
Ok, I get that America has stuffed a lot of things up lately, but do the poms really need to take it back? Apparently so, if this long list is anything to go by. Otherwise, it's pretty hard to explain the inclusion of Ruth Ozecki or Jhumpa Lahiri. Don't get me wrong. I really like both of them. But Ozecki is American born, to American and Japanese parents. She spends half her time in America. For six months a year, she hangs out in Canada. Is that enough to justify her annexation by the Prince George Alexander Louis fan club? At least Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants. That's double Commonwealth cred points. However she moved Stateside when she was two and now identifies as an Indian American. Clearly the Yanks takes her for one of their own. She won The Pulitzer Prize. At what point, then, can we consider the umbilical cord well and truly cut? I kind of hope she wins just to be the only author ever to win both the Pulitzer and Booker. Then she can make a triumphant, albeit brief stopover in Australia just so she's eligible for The Miles Franklin. The possibilities are endless.


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