The Man Booker shortlist

I woke up knowing that the Booker shortlist had been announced while I was asleep (10am BST). My first intimation that it was not what I and some other readers were expecting came when I read Rosario’s and Theresa’s tweets. Whoa. There were three I expected and three I didn’t, two choices that I agreed with and multiple omissions I didn’t. So, I suppose, a normal Booker year? Here’s the list:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
  • The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozely
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • Autumn by Ali Smith

What was different for me this year was that I had read over half the list, which is far and away the most, and I’d been so sure, along with a few other people, that some of the books were slam dunks. In that category were the Ali Smith , which made it, and Reservoir 13, which didn’t. In the next category (probably but not a slam dunk) were Solar Bones, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Home Fire. I thought Days Without End and The Underground Railroad might suffer from the “too many awards already” problem, but the Barry certainly deserved to be there on quality grounds in my opinion, and the bookies and the rest of the literary world thought the Whitehead did too.

This year’s longlist was really strong, and there were always going to be worthy books left off. I’m still kind of stunned, though. I shouldn’t be; after years of reviewing genre novels I certainly know the importance of taste, and when you have a high quality threshold like you do here, taste is going to play a key role.

Of my choices that didn’t make it, the one I feel most strongly about is Reservoir 13. It’s a terrific accomplishment, it’s innovative while still being accessible, and McGregor is a long way from a household name. McCormack has already won awards for Solar Bones, and I’m guessing Home Fire will do well in upcoming award competitions.

Right now my first choice on this list is Autumn, but I plan to read the Fridlund and the Mozely before the announcement, and I’ll see how much headway I can make on the Auster. My taste-wise least favorite is the Saunders; I can see why it was chosen, and lots of smart thoughtful readers love it, but if it wins I’ll know how the anti-Sellout people felt last year. 🙂

The winner is announced on October 17.

How about you? What do you think? Are you surprised, pleased, befuddled, or some other emotion completely? Which ones are you going to read (or not)?

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18 thoughts on “The Man Booker shortlist

  1. My thoughts are all over the place. I’ve read only one book on the shortlist (Autumn) and I may try to read another one or two. My library system doesn’t have Elmet (not surprising, as it is a small press offering by a new author). I’ve read enough varying reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo to know that it isn’t for me. I may try Exit West and/or History of Wolves. However, I still want to read three others from the longlist–whenever the library can get them in my hands(Reservoir 13, Home Fire and Solar Bones).
    I would like to think the judges wouldn’t give the top prize to a US author two years in a row, but what do I know about how their minds work?

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    • I’m swinging between being really disappointed and thinking I don’t understand how the Booker works, despite following it for decades. I think my problem is that their rationales don’t explain the results. It’s all about the writing, but the longlist had better examples of great writing. Under-appreciated authors? That explains the debut authors, but Saunders is a MacArthur genius grant recipient. Part of it is that books like the Auster and the Fridlund are not that unusual in terms of fiction in the US. One of the reasons I didn’t want to read the Fridlund was that it sounded so much like other recent books. The Auster may be great, I haven’t read it (also true for the Fridlund), but I’m not seeing a lot of innovation here. And given the Booker pays attention to such things, historically, I’m kind of bummed that we have 5 white authors, 1 LGBT author and 1 POC author. So, I’m bemused, to use your term.

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  2. Reading your comment to Barb, I wonder about how the judges being British colored their views of the originality of some books. My feeling about Auster was kind of “blah, four versions of a New York/NJ Jewish male writer’s life?” but maybe they thought about Reservoir 13 “blah, village life in the Midlands?”.

    I liked/admired the Saunders book less as I read more of the others. Partly that’s personal taste: I found it both more vulgar and more sentimental than Solar Bones or Reservoir 13, even though arguably taking up some similar themes. It’s showier and less controlled. That’s not my preference and I think its experiments weren’t that successful, but I can see the case for it. I don’t get the Fridlund, though. I did like some of the writing–the narrator’s observations of the natural world–but like Saunders’ book I thought its ideas were kind of jumbled and the plot structure just did not work for me. The pieces did not fit together and I didn’t find it at all suspenseful.

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    • Reading the first chapter and the reviews on the Auster, one of the reasons I put it on the back burner was that it sounded like so many other White Dude Grows Up In the 1960s books, just with an interesting structure. But it didn’t sound as if the structure really led to much that other books hadn’t done better.

      I got the Fridlund from the library and I’m going to give it a try. Maybe the language will be enough, but I kind of doubt it.

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    • I saw that and thought it was a great column. He’s right that from a purely selfish viewpoint, American readers heard about non-US books that we wouldn’t have necessarily come across thanks to the Booker. Now we’re seeing books shortlisted that have already received a ton of press here. But I think they’re not going back, and it’s a shame, especially because as Liz said above, it’s harder for non-specialist judges to know what is new and fresh if they’re not familiar with the particular culture. Of course that happens with books they pick from outside the UK, but those are usually genuinely under-publicized in the big markets.

      Thanks to following a couple of reader groups at GR (The Mookse and the Gripes, and Newest Literary Fiction), I’ve learned about other awards in the UK and elsewhere which sound interesting. In particular, the Goldsmiths Prize is UK/Ireland only and emphasizes innovative styles and subjects (Ali Smith has won one and Solar Bones won in 2016). It releases its longlist at the end of this month, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on it. And I’ve been reading more translated fiction this year and last, which I’ve really enjoyed. All of which is to say that while I’ll still follow the Booker, I’m trying to branch out so that I can find more Reservoir 13s.

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      • I’m no expert on the Booker, nor have I read any of the books yet. But… does it strike anyone else as odd that in this post-Brexit, Trumpian year, the selection of authors on the shortlist is as white as it is? is this “Paul Beatty won last year” tokenism, or am I missing something? It just seems to me that if you’re going to make the short list half American, there should be at least one book by an American author of color on it, if not more, especially given that race is *the* issue at the heart of US society right now.

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        • Paul Beatty last year and Marlon James the year before that. I did notice that the POC writers, with the exception of Hamid, were left off. There are always more worthy books than places, but still. And Saunders’ take of history at a period of intense racial conflict was quite unsatisfying to me. So yeah, it was odd.

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          • Yeah. I misspoke earlier… Race is always the issue at the heart of US society, but right now it is playing out in such an incredibly ugly way. I started reading the Hamid last night and though I’m only a short way in, I love it so far. I often chicken out of literary novels midway but I hope I don’t with this one.

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            • It ends on a positive note, as long as you aren’t too invested in seeing Nadia and Saeed stay together. I liked that aspect a lot, because even though there are plenty of depressing things happening, Hamid makes space for hope as well.

              I think the Booker panel would be criticized more for giving it to three American authors who were all men (James was perceived as American by some critics because he lives in Minnesota now) than for giving it to three black authors writing about race. And I guess I don’t see 2017 as marked departure in terms of racial conflict and ugly racist discourse, although our President has taken it to a new level in terms of public normalization. But I also live a few miles from Ferguson MO in a city notorious for segregation and racial discrimination, so my perspective reflects that.

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      • I saw the Goldsmith short list today. Besides ‘Reservoir 13’ (which I already have on hold at the library) there were 2 others that caught my interest –‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume and ‘Phone’ by Will Self.
        They also released the short list for the Canadian Rogers Writer’s Trust fiction prize, but I haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet.
        Your thoughts? Any that you can recommend?

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        • I thought the list looked great. I got the Baume at the library and I’m really intrigued by the Self as well, although it’s the third in a series and it’s long! I think I’ll order it and the Barker, which has gotten some advance buzz. Not sure about First Love but it’s also available at the library so if I have time then maybe.

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  3. Yes, that’s why I corrected myself. Trump is inciting hate crimes and Nazi demostrations, and of course there are his policies as well. But racial conflict and ugly racist discourse have been around forever.

    With regard to the awards, I guess I have an expectation of literary award committees to issue their awards with an eye toward what’s happening with Trump. it’s an opportunity for them to make a statement. Maybe that’s a foolish assumption? But the exclusion of American POC makes me feel that this particular committee may not be all that interested in what US authors have to say on injustice in the US. And that makes me wonder why they expanded the awards to include the US.

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    • I don’t know that I want the judges of a literary award to make a statement about American politics just because they’re accepting submissions from American authors. Many Americans are understandably obsessed with Trump, worldwide online media in English seem to be obsessed with Trump, but does literary fiction in English need to reflect that? It can, certainly, but that sounds like a terrible burden to put on an artist.

      An award needs to be whatever it is, with all the downsides and upsides attached to what its terms of reference produce. The Booker has always straddled a line between high-literary and readable-middlebrow, with awards for books that are too extreme in either direction getting a lot of criticism. Sometimes they go with the popular choice, sometimes they don’t. But they’ve not often been like the Nobel Peace Prize, i.e., using their choice to send a political message. Which to my mind is good, because we’ve had some Peace Prize winners that really do not hold up in the medium and long term.

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      • In thinking further about the long v. short lists, only 2 of the 6 longlist choices are focused on contemporary political themes and issues. The Roy and Shamsie were also left off, and they are extremely political (India and the UK/War on Terror respectively). I also think of the McGregor and the McCormack as politically relevant through their engagement with issues of ecological change and human effects on nature. Also left off. So whatever their criteria were, politics were not high on the list.

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      • That’s a good point about the Nobels. There is certainly something to be said for not using literary awards that way. My thinking may be muddied by my feeling that Trump’s rise to power is a huge disastrous turn and not just for the US. But that is something only time will tell.

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  4. To correct myself again, I should have said, this year’s judges panel, rather than this particular committee–that’s what I meant!

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