About The Author
Jon Day is a writer, critic and academic. He was educated at St John’s College, Oxford and now lectures at King’s College London. His essays and reviews have appeared in the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, n+1 and the Guardian. He writes about art for Apollo and is a regular fiction critic for the Telegraph and Financial Times. He worked as a bicycle courier in London for several years, an experience he wrote about in his book, Cycleogeography.
Exclusively for Foyles, we chatted to Jon about his experience as one of this year’s Man Booker judges, why he loves the winning book and the advice he would give to next year’s panel.
Photo of Jon Day © Mark Cocksedge
Watch a video of Jon talking about his experience as a judge
Read an extract from The Sellout
Read a blog by this year's Chair of Judges Amanda Foreman on the intangibles that combine to make the 'magic alchemy' behind the judging process, and how the most successful novels are those that are 'fearless'.
Questions & Answers
How did you become a Man Booker judge?
Being asked to be a Man Booker judge felt a bit like being asked to join MI5, it was quietly tapped up behind the scenes. I’ve been writing book reviews for a number of years and it was on the back of that critical work that I was invited to get involved. The panel was composed of people who are interested in books but also all bring a certain kind of expertise or background to the role. So David Harsent is a poet, novelist and librettist and Olivia Williams is an actor who is interested in the performative nature of novels. Abdulrazak Gurnah is a novelist himself and teaches at university ,and our chair, Amanda Foreman, is a historian. So having these different approaches to reading what a novel is, what it can be and what it can do in the world was a fascinating part of that experience.
Did any aspects of the process surprise you?
It’s a surprising process because although the workload is familiar - you know what you’re expected to do - yet at every stage you don’t quite realise quite what that’s going to entail until you’re in the thick of it. It’s not just the number of books you read – we read somewhere around 150 or 160 novels in six months, which equates to a book a day, and that is both intellectually and almost physically exhausting – but it’s also that at the end of the process, coming up with the winner, having these discussions about what the best novel of the year might, be occludes all that work in one way: you’ve read a lot and at the end you’re left with a shortlist of books you want to evangelise for, but there are many other books obviously that you might want to have conversations about along the way. So I was surprised how emotionally laborious I found that process.
Another distinct thing about the Man Booker Prize is not only that all the judges read all of the submissions but that our list is then exposed to greater scrutiny. So between the longlist and the shortlist we re-read all 13 novels and then after the shortlist we obviously re-read all of the 6 novels on our shortlist. In a sense. One of the criteria by which we were discussing how we might answer the question of a book’s quality is whether it would bear that kind of scrutiny. So in assembling our longlist I think we were interested in books in which we saw the potential to uncover new meanings, new subtleties and depths, and that process continued throughout our discussions on the shortlist. So the re-reading is very much part of that process and in a sense I think it’s an unusual thing to require of a book – there aren’t many books that can sustain and indeed reward that level of scrutiny, and the distinction between a first encounter with a novel, which for many people will be a last encounter too, and living with a book, thinking about it in all sorts of ways and in relation to the other books on the list, made for a very dynamic and complicated conversation.
How do you manage to find a clear path when judging books that are so disparate – in style, form, genre, every way possible. You’re comparing apples and oranges at the very least.
That’s one of the great things about the novel: capaciousness. It can be so many different things. Critics have asked whether some of the novels on our shortlist can actually be called novels and I think those kinds of conversations are fascinating - what constitutes a great work of unified imaginative writing, what the novel is. I mean it’s astounding to me that 200 years on we still argue about that - those definitions and what the relationship between fiction and the world is essentially. So I suppose in a kind of pragmatic sense my answer to that question would be that we attempted to compare apples and oranges in the way that you would any other series of texts through rigorous discussion and debate about them. The meetings were incredibly fertile and enjoyable for me because I teach and as an academic I value the seminar, the semi-public conversation about a set of ideas and a set of texts, and I think that’s essentially the methodology we employed to answer that question. So it was an ongoing live debate.
What appealed to you about The Sellout?
It’s an extraordinary book in all sorts of ways. I think it has a great anarchical satirical power – although I know Beatty doesn’t consider it to be a satire – but what’s remarkable about it from my perspective is that he managed to find a theme and a set of ideas and indeed a style that came together to be profoundly shocking in an age where we feel un-shockable in one way or another, not in terms of its subject matter particularly but in terms of what it does with that subject matter. I think what I value most about this book, apart from its sheer virtuosic humour, is its savagery, the way in which it challenges you almost on every page to ask why you might read a book like this, why you might write a book like this and what a book like this might do in the wider world. It’s a book that’s both very much of its place and of its time in the sense of its almost microscopic focus on Los Angeles, and some of the themes might be said to be particularly relevant to American readers, but I think like all great satire, all great humorous and satirical writing, it uses those specificities and that kind of laser-like focus on the local to challenge universal assumptions about, in this case, segregation and racism. Finding the world in a grain of sand in the way Beatty does in this novel is an extraordinary achievement.
Did you support the relaxing of the rules to allow other nationalities to enter?
It becomes an abstract question. The relaxation of the rules to allow any writers working in English who are published in the UK to be eligible for the prize didn’t really influence in any way my experience of reading these books and indeed the kinds of conversations we had around them, so in that sense I have no opinion on whether it’s a good or a bad thing. As a judge all you’re doing is stacking up the books one by one on a pile and the ones that immediately stand out as worthy of more attention either because you think so or because someone in the panel makes a compelling case for that book, it’s all incredibly introverted, that process. You don’t think, ‘oh look, here’s an American book’, you just think ‘here’s a great book’.
Have your literature students wanted to engage in a dialogue with you about the books, what do you think their reaction to the winner will be?
I don’t know, I haven’t spoken about it that much with them, and they’ve got their other reading to be getting on with. A few of them have been interested in the process and indeed the books, and especially our winner. I was teaching Conrad a few weeks ago and we talked about his use of racialized language in various ways and what it might mean in the present age to censor oneself and censor the classics in particular. One of the great comic subplots in Paul Beatty’s book concerns the members of the brilliantly observed discussion group, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, one of whom wants to re-write classic texts excising racially offensive language from them and is brilliantly retitling them. So those discussions have come up and have informed the kind of teaching and reading around that that I do as an academic.
I was thinking of doing a course on a year in the life of a novel. What’s exciting for me, even exhilarating about this process, which I don’t think is common experience for anyone apart from prize judges and a few other people, is that you do get a feeling that you’ve read a slice of what the publishing world thinks of as the best, it’s a snapshot of a year and that’s a really interesting thing to be exposed to and not something that I think you would ever force yourself to do otherwise. I read a lot of books as a reviewer and a critic but that doesn’t have the cohesiveness or the aspiration to totality that the Booker does, and that’s been incredibly intriguing.
Has judging the prize changed the way you read books?
I don’t think it has changed the way I read books. But I’m fairly exhausted and I think I might give novels a break for a while, temporarily! I read a lot of non-fiction and I will wallow in that for the next few weeks if not months. But I think that this distinction people make between reading for pleasure and reading for some other purpose, whether it’s to write a book review, make a critical judgment or whatever it might be, it’s a bit of a false dichotomy. All readers read with a thesis even if that thesis isn’t then shared with the world in any way. One thing that I think is very good about book prizes and in particular the Man Booker, is the kinds of conversations they start: if you care about books then you know that one pf the most pleasurable aspects is talking about them and indeed arguing about them and I think that’s been a feature of all my reading both before this experience and I hope after it.
Do you have any advice for next year’s judges based on your experience this year?
The advice I would give the incoming jury members is to take the process seriously, which is to say, engage with all the books, think about all the books. I was surprised at how many books had something to commend about them even those that you thought had no hope of winning a prize. And the other thing I would say is be single-minded about it. When your longlist and your shortlist are announced everybody starts commenting on what they think of those books but they’re usually not talking about the books themselves, they’re talking about what the list looks like: they read the list rather than the books on the list and especially in a year like our year where serendipitously many of the authors on our shortlist were relatively unknown, it’s inevitable that very few people had read all the books on the shortlist, very few commentators anyway, and it just seems to me a pointless exercise to read the list as a representative of anything other than the books on it. So my advice to the judges would be to ignore all that. Read the books and not the commentary on the books.