Sunday, 12 September 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: The Booker Prize Shortlist 2010

So following my previous post about this year's Booker longlist, I found myself thinking "Hey, wouldn't it be nice if I could be right this year about the winner?"

In truth, my track record is not too good on this score. In 2004, I really felt (and for once, the bookies did too) that David Mitchell was set to win with Cloud Atlas. I was absolutely shocked when Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty took it instead, and, furthermore, felt that all was not as it seemed with the choice of this particular book as the winner. It all seemed a little too convenient that the first openly gay author to win the prize was awarded it in the first year that an openly gay cabinet minister was on the judging panel. The controversy surrounding my views in the uni rag at this time means that it is perhaps unsurprising that I can't remember much else about the Booker Prizes that followed (except to comment on the breathtakingness of Kate Grenville's The Secret River, shortlisted for the 2006 prize, which makes your heart skip a beat right from the first page). In the 2009 round of the competition, I had lowered my expectations of my psychic abilities and only desired that it was NOT Sarah Waters who won (thankfully, on this score I was right).

Despite this admittedly weak history, though, I was still disappointed to find that against my prediction, David Mitchell had been culled from this year's longlist, not making it through to the final six. Turning my attention to those that had been chosen, the selection seemed disappointing. You've got your token post-colonial novel, and your typical novel based on recent news (Emma Donoghue's Room has uncanny resemblance to the case of Jaycee Lee Dugard and her children). The other nominations seem equally lacklustre, with the exception of the only one to light my fire, Tom McCarthy's C, which seems the most original, ambitious and unconventional.

The issue that has most characterised this year's Booker for me has been the bias and engineering that I see in the selections. As I mentioned in my previous post, the bookies rushed to put the strongest odds on Peter Carey's offering as soon as the press made a story of the fact that if he won this time he would be the only person to ever do so three times. These, to me, are not grounds to win in themselves, but now that the seed has been planted in the minds of the judges and in the minds of those who bet on these prizes, it is sure, whether consciously or unconsciously, to have an influence. If it does win, I shall be extremely sceptical about whether Carey actually deserved it.

The other novel which I now reject on principle as a "worthy winner" is The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, thanks to Giles Coren's article on this author's shortlisted novel in this weekend's Times. I suspect he meant to attract people to the author's work, but sadly, Mr Coren, you have failed with me. The principal reason that Coren gave for Jacobson to win was that he is a Jewish author, and only the second to ever be shortlisted for the prize. No Jewish author has ever won it, and this, in Mr Coren's view, almost entitles him to win. Sorry, but no. Nobody should win any prize based on gender, age, race, sexuality, ethnicity, or for any other reason other than them being worthy of winning it. And that is it. Coren's proposition alone turns me off Jacobson's nomination entirely, which seems a shame in some ways.

In sneakily previewing what I could procure of this year's shortlist online, Carey's novel has personality and pretension but lacks vigour. The vast majority of the other nominations are not even available for preview. Is Amazon biasing readers and judges before the prize is even decided?

The only other novel I could take a sneak peek at from the shortlist was Andrea Levy's The Long Song, which sadly seemed contrived and arresting in a combination that is not altogether comfortable. My hope therefore remains for now with C; and as ominous as it sounds, we shall see.

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