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Baffled by the Booker

27th July 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin

Man Booker Prize logoSo what did you make of this year's Man Booker longlist? If curiosity and puzzlement are your principal reactions, you're in very good company. Most literary reviewers and bloggers whose responses I've so far read are also not quite sure what to make of the thirteen titles Dame Stella Rimington and her dogged team of judges have selected. And neither am I.

It's been a superb year for fiction - after a mediocre 2010 - and so my predictions for what would be on the longlist changed regularly. Even so, I think I can only claim to have foreseen two - Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child and Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side - and there are even a couple this year that are completely new to me.

Like every fan of contemporary literary fiction, I have my grievances about certain titles whose omission I find baffling. The absence of Lloyd Jones' Hand Me Down World, Ali Smith's There But For The and, most particularly, Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here was very disappointing.

But everyone will have a favourite or two that hasn't made the cut and I'm very wary of laying into the judges for their choices. Having made their way through nearly 140 books in the last few months, they are undoubtedly the five best-read people in the country in terms of books released this year; I know from my own experience as a Costa Novel Award judge that reading so intensely gives one a whole new perspective.

The SeaWhat their longlist doesn't do is give away very much about what they've been looking for. It's a list of books with very little in common with each other. Few are distinguished by the sublime prose that resulted in past wins for the likes of John Banville's The Sea or Anne Enright's The Gathering. There's a comic novel in there and two, maybe three, that could be categorised as thrillers. Plenty of them feature protagonists for whom readers will feel an intense sympathy and there's certainly no lack of emotional ups and downs. There are a number of settings and scenarios which will be enlighteningly new to the average reader.

A few of the choices certainly vindicated their publishers' enthusiasm for them in those months before release when they were selling them into bookshops. Bloomsbury really pushed Pigeon English, Atlantic declared that Snowdrops was the best book on their list for 2011, Canongate were very excited about Jamrach's Menagerie and Serpent's Tail raved about Half-Blood Blues.

The one thing that makes me slightly wary about the judges' choices is the number of debuts: four of the thirteen are first novels. Only four debuts have ever won the Booker and this is a ratio that seems right to me; very few first-time novelists produce the assured command of the novel that should be the hallmark of a Booker winner. The Bone People and The God of Small Things were extraordinary one-offs that their authors have failed to follow up and Vernon God Little and The White Tiger were decidedly ropey choices.

Indeed, Aravind Adiga's win highlights a potential flaw in the Booker process. Unlike some literary prizes, such as the Pulitzer or France's prestigious Prix Goncourt, not all the judges come from a background that absorbs them in literary fiction and this can sometimes lead to heads being turned by novelty. Michael Portillo chaired the judges the year of Adiga's win and I was startled by his comment that The White Tiger was like nothing he had read before. It's like plenty of things I've read before, including one from the shortlist just the year before.

Me CheetaThere are at least a couple of titles on this year's longlist whose principal merit is quite possibly grabbing one's attention. But, then again, there are always one or two like that. Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 is a fine thriller but had no business being on the 2008 longlist. James Lever's Me Cheeta was a hugely entertaining novelty, but I wasn't surprised to learn that one of the 2009 judges was furious at the rest of the panel's insistence that it feature on their longlist.

When bookmakers compile the odds each year, it's based on reputation - no one at William Hill is speed-reading the longlist - so their prices are pretty arbitrary. This year, however, their guess is very much as good as mine or anyone else's. I've no idea whether Alan Hollinghurst is a realistic favourite, even if his short odds put him ahead of the pack. Before the list was announced, I tipped Sebastian Barry and I still think he'd make a superb winner, but I haven't the faintest idea how serious a contender he might be in the mind of the judges.

No matter how informed the process, no matter how much effort the judges put into defining objective criteria, there is no escaping the fact that the award of a literary prize is based, in part, on personal taste, albeit informed by intensive reading. It's perhaps healthier to look upon the process less as a judgement and more as a recommendation: after all, last year's winner, Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, wasn't even submitted by his publisher and required the judges to use their power to 'call in' titles.

And you shouldn't wait until we're down to a single book: dig in to the longlist. If five people all recommended the same book to you, you'd certainly be curious, so why not take a chance on something Dame Stella and her team think is worth reading ahead of more than 120 other books?

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