Submitted by Man Booker Prize on Fri, 2017-09-15 17:57
The Man Booker shortlist is out and the first reactions are in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top headline topic has been the presence of Fiona Mozley and Emily Fridlund on the list. Both female, both young, both debutantes . . . what’s not to like? Had just one of them made the cut it would have been Christmas but with both of them there it is Christmas come early. What some media outlets liked in particular was that Mozley works part time in a bookshop, a job that makes her story – young, struggling in London, wrote the book on her phone during train journeys to her home town of York etc – all the more perfect. The BBC and Sky News were among those who chose to flag up this aspect (the BBC also noted that “It is a coup too for her editor Becky Walsh. It was the first book she acquired when she joined the small imprint JM Originals”). Sky News meanwhile dropped in the info that “Since the shortlist announcement, publishers JM Originals have printed an additional 15,000 copies of Elmet.”)
The Financial Times naturally made mention of Mozley’s and Fridlund’s status too but being an international journal, they decided that the presence of three Americans on the list – Paul Auster, George Saunders and Fridlund – was more noteworthy. Strangely the paper opined that “The question on the lips of the British literary world has been whether the prize, established in 1969 and historically restricted to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, would become ‘Americanised’, since it was opened up to US writers in 2014.” This column can’t claim to have spoken to absolutely everyone in the British literary world but a straw poll suggests that the question on its collective lips was the identity rather than the nationality of the shortlisted writers. As one of the judges, Lila Azam Zanganeh, noted, less than 30 per cent of the books submitted for the prize were by US writers, which marked a decrease on 2016. Not that US domination entered the judges’ thinking: “I feel we are transcultural, increasingly”, she said.
The Guardian meanwhile had the nous to point out that Mozley and Fridlund are not the only first-time novelists on the list. While George Saunders may not be quite as winsome as those two fellow shortlistees, he is one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” – Lincoln in the Bardo is nevertheless his debut novel also.
The judges, said the chair Baroness Lola Young, took six hours of “pretty robust discussion” (diplomatic speak for “heated” perhaps?) to come up with their list. The hope of all judging panels is that one of the books before them will be the perfect novel and should they be lucky enough the process would then take only minutes. But, as Sarah Hall, another of the judges pointed out: “There’s no such thing as a perfect novel so as the books sustain the tests of technicality, of interiority, of strength of character, it becomes harder [to choose], because what is a perfect novel?” Hence the six hours, which probably went in a flash.
The jettisoning of some of the biggest names on the longlist – Arundhati Roy, Sebastian Barry, Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead – also caused much comment. The omission of the Pulitzer Prize-winner Whitehead in particular took commentators by surprise. It caught the bookies on the hop too, since he had been their favourite. A rapid readjustment followed with Saunders now being installed as the front-runner at 2/1 with Mohsin Hamid and Mozley at 4/1, Auster at 5/1 and Fridlund and Ali Smith at 6/1.
Another of the judges, Colin Thubron, was widely quoted for his comments about the embarrassing nature of many of the jacket blurbs that decorate (or deface) some of the books in contention. “There are certain quotes that almost blackmail you into feeling intellectually or morally incompetent if you have not liked the book or have not understood it,” he said. It was a sentiment backed up by another judge, Tom Phillips, who thought that the blurbs were “outrageous in some instances”. Messrs Thubron and Phillips are not the first distinguished figures to take umbrage; in 1936 George Orwell fulminated against “the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers”. Time to take to the streets …
The prize for the raciest coverage, however, goes to the London Evening Standard which chose to focus not on the literary merits of the shortlisted novels but on Lola Young’s admission that she had been reduced to blushes by the line “milky white thighs begging to be taken from behind” appearing in one of the books. She also went on to say that a couple of “could have been considered for the Bad Sex Award”. The Man Booker Prize, it should be stated, has nothing against the physical expression of desire between consenting adults.