The Booker Shortlist: A Guesstimation Guide

on Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Less than twenty four hours to go before the unveiling of this year's Booker Prize shortlist and I'm embarrassingly behind on my annual quest to read all thirteen contenders. Thus far I've done four and bought three others. To be honest, I just haven't been that inspired. I will, of course, read through the shortlist when it is announced but I'm secretly hoping that will only mean three or, at a stretch, four more because, frankly, I have a massive pile of non-Booker novels next to my bed that I would much prefer to get stuck into. Also, I'm worried about my poor dog. He keeps pushing against the tower with his nose and it's only a matter of time before the whole thing comes tumbling down on his head.

Needless to say I'm in no position to pre-empt tomorrow's announcement. For all I know, nearly every one of the books I haven't read is a true masterpiece. After all, they beat out the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Roddy Doyle, Margaret Atwood and David Peace to get to the final thirteen. What I can do, however, is hazard a few predictions based on the trends of previous years. I have read almost everything on the past six Booker long lists and have come to realise that those that do make the cut tend to fall into certain categories. Ditto the ones that miss out. So, knowing almost nothing about the majority of the books that stand to be included, here's my completely hypothetical shortlist breakdown:

The Sure Bet That Won't Win
In 2007 I put a hundred bucks on Mister Pip before the long list was even announced. I think I got odds of about 100 to 1. As each Booker step progressed - the long list, the shortlist - the odds tightened and I went from planning a fancy dinner to trawling real estate websites to find a nice looking tropical island. By the morning of the announcement, it was neck and neck between Lloyd Jones and Ian McEwan. Countless suckers had caught on to my brilliant prediction and were only getting 3 to 1. Then came the great moment: The Booker Prize 2007 goes to... Anne Enright for The Gathering. WHAT??? I still maintain that Jones was robbed. So do many other people. That's not to say The Gathering wasn't a wonderful (albeit bleak) novel. It's just that Mister Pip is one of those once in a lifetime, want to caress, cuddle, marry and grow old together books. This year, the sure bet would have to be Jim Crace. Harvest is a marvel. It also sits atop the Ladbrokes list at 3/1. Everyone wants it to win, not only because it objectively deserves to but also because we all love Jim Crace. The guy is retiring and has earned his gold watch. Moreover, we can give it to him without the slight embarrassment of knowing this particular book didn't deserve it (hello Ian McEwan and John Banville). All of which is to say, Harvest will be on the shortlist. It should win the prize. It probably won't.

The Unworthy Consolation Candidate
Staying on the topic, remember Let The Great World Spin? That book was awesome. I still consider it THE Great American Novel of the post-9/11 era. Never mind that it was written by an Irish guy or that it was ignored by Team Booker despite the fact it won the National Book Award across the Atlantic. Segue to that same Irish guy's follow up; a pretty ploddy affair utilising the very tricks that made Let the Great World Spin so incredible but to a much lesser effect... It's called TransAtlantic. It may well get on to the list. It just might win. It shouldn't.

The Controversial Inclusion
Team Booker loves a good argument. In the past, litnerds have gone bare knuckle over two main issues: how long a book ought to be to qualify as a novel (Sense of An Ending, On Chesil Beach) and whether an experimental book which isn't all that fictional can still be considered a work of fiction (Summertime, In A Strange Room). This year we a double dose of the first and an entirely new one to boot. As I've noted in a previous post, The Testament of Mary is one hundred and twelve pages. The Spinning Heart is one hundred and sixty. Having read them, it wouldn't surprise me if one or both of them ended up being shortlisted. Toibin's novel is just brilliant, while Ryan's is the sort of downtrodden outsider fiction (with a bit of experimental form thrown in for good measure) that prize givers love. No doubt traditionalists will be chomping on their monocles tomorrow. Ditto if The Kills makes it. A veritable doorstop, it is supposedly best experienced in electronic form, with supplementary online material adding to the experience. A prize for an e-book? What ever will they think of next?

The Rank Outsider
Remember The Clothes On Their Backs? What about The Dark Room? Swimming Home? There's always one that, no matter how good it is, we all forget the day after they hand out the prize. Contenders this year include Alison MacLeod's Unexploded, Charlotte Mendelson's Almost English and Eve Harris's The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. You can almost be certain that one of them will make the shortlist.

The Colonial Contender
Whether it be Australia, India, Canada or South Africa, Team Booker loves its colonies. The more exotic, the better. This year we have long listed novels from England-via-Malaysia (Five Star Billionaire), America-via-India (The Lowland), America-via-Zimbabwe (We Need New Names) and trusty old New Zealand (The Luminaries). It's likely that more than one of these will make the shortlist, but at the very least I'd be putting my money on New Zealand.

The Brick
Back in the days when I'd read the entire long list, there was nothing I hated more than 'the brick'. Darkmans, Wolf Hall, A Fraction of The Whole. You get the picture. This year we get two: The Kills at 1024 pages and The Luminaries at 832. I have a funny feeling both will be on the list. At least they look good.

The Whizzbang Debut
Got to have a debut to shake things up and cripple a writer with performance anxiety for the rest of their career. This time we have a choice of Donal Ryan, NoViolet Bulawayo and Eve Harris. Right now Harris is at the bottom of the Ladbrokes table at 14 to 1. Almost guarantees her a spot I'd say.

The Criminally Overlooked
And, of course, there will be one book that absolutely should be on the list but isn't. In the past we've had Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan, Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie and Schopenhauer's Telescope by Gerard Donovan. This year there are three that it would be a crime to leave off: Harvest, The Testament of Mary and The Luminaries. No doubt one will fall by the wayside.

Ok, so on the basis of all that opinionated crap, and using absolutely nonsensical algorithms (i.e. complete guesswork), my picks for tomorrow's Booker Prize Shortlist are:

Harvest by Jim Crace
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Kills by Richard House
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
A Tale For Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
With my floating seventh being The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Based on my previous form when it comes to these things, I look forward to seeing how completely off the mark I am! To be honest, I'll be happy with 50%.

See you tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Knob head.

The Bookworm said...

A brilliant, cutting comment from behind the wall of anonymity. That said, tongue-in-cheek knobbery was my aim so I'll just pat myself on the back.

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