Booker's Dozen

6th August 2010

The Man Booker Prize is the prize for fiction, and this year’s longlist has just been announced: 13 new novels, of which one will ultimately receive honour, glory and praise, plus £50,000 and an instant spike in sales.

Jill Glenn assesses what’s on offer.

Here are thirteen exceptional novels – books we have chosen for their intrinsic quality, without reference to the past work of their authors. Wide-ranging in their geography and their concern, they tell powerful stories which make the familiar strange and cover an enormous range of history and feeling. We feel confident that they will provoke and entertain.

Andrew Motion, Chair of the Man Booker judges

You’ve got to be pretty dedicated – or a member of the judging panel (and at least they can legitimately call it work…) – to wade through all 4998 pages of the longlist, and a bit of a gambler too. Seven of the thirteen will fall by the wayside on 7 September, at shortlist stage, so there’s a distinct and depressing possibility that you might find you’ve read entirely the wrong half.

Would that matter? After all, if it is the considered opinion of the judging panel that these are the books that we ‘should’ be reading, the books that represent the best of the year’s fiction, then spending half your summer on them could hardly be considered a waste of time. The point of the literary prize is often questioned, the concept often dismissed – but surely, along with rewarding the author, one of the aims must be to expose the book to a wider audience… and the best way of ensuring that is to set it in its peer group. We can disagree about the peer group (questions have already been asked this year about the omission of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, for example) but anything that brings innovative or exciting writing to the attention of an increasingly image-based world is a Good Thing.

I’ve often been daunted by the longlist, and I admit I’ve rarely managed all of it; in my defence a good proportion of my reading takes place on trains and railway stations, and lugging expensive hardbacks around isn’t always practical. (I know; I shouldn’t be an e-reader Luddite – but I spend my day looking at a screen; I want my free time to be different). In any case, I’ve always really liked to wait and give myself an even greater challenge: the shortlist. By then, I find there’s a real sense of hope and expectation. Five weeks, six books. Not impossible, unless perhaps one of them turns out to be the 672 pages of Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, which publisher Hamish Hamilton has smartly released as a three volume boxed set. I’m sure that must be breaking the rules.

This year, though, there are some interesting names on the longlist: books that you’d want to read anyway. Or that I would. At least five would find their way straight onto my summer holiday reading: Rose Tremain and Andrea Levy, who both occupy a pleasingly fertile ground between mainstream and literary, plus, just because I like the sound of them (and what better reason is there?), Lisa Moore, Emma Donoghue and Helen Dunmore – although the latter’s a bit of a problem if you haven’t read The Betrayal’s prequel, The Siege. Is there time to fit that one in too? Probably not. Then there’s the new David Mitchell… his Black Swan Green I thought both clever and touching, so The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is on my list too. Reviewer Alexander Linklater has described it as ‘fully emotionally satisfying’: that I need to check out.

Naturally, there’s always at least one on the longlist that just fundamentally doesn’t appeal. This year it’s The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas which is generating praise and loathing in equal measure, and really doesn’t sound my sort of thing. In the past it’s usually the one I deselect that eventually wins. You read it here first.

I find it impossible to ignore the Booker (or the Orange, or the Costa). It’s the same as wanting to know what someone’s reading on the train or tube; they’re complete strangers, sure, and I’ve therefore no idea whether their taste will concur with mine – but if there’s a book on view, I’ve got to know what it is. I have techniques for finding out, and I’ve no shame. Perusing literary shortlists is just a legitimate way of looking over someone else’s shoulder – with the added advantage that lots of other readers are doing the same.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2010 shortlist will be announced on
Tuesday 7 September. The winner will be revealed on Tuesday 12 October at a dinner at London's Guildhall and will be broadcast on the BBC Ten O'Clock News.

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