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GUEST BLOG: Man Booker Prize Literary Director Ion Trewin gives his thoughts on the shortlist

8th September 2011 - Ion Trewin

Ion TrewinIon Trewin has been the Literary Director of the Man Booker Prize since 2006, taking over from Martyn Goff. His association with the prize stretches back to 1974, when he was Chair of the judging panel that declared Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton's Holiday joint winners.

At the time he was Literary Editor of The Times, but he moved into publishing in 1980. He edited Thomas Keneally's 1982 Booker Prize winner Schindler's Ark and was Alan Clark's editor and publisher from 1992 until his death. His edition of The Hugo Young Papers won the 2009 Channel Political Book of the Year. He was Chairman of the Cheltenham Literature Festival from 1996 to 2007.

 

I have been much struck this year by the writing talent that has emerged in the Man Booker submissions, two first novels among them. That some observers were quick to comment on the absence, even from the Longlist, of former winners of the prize as well as a host of previously shortlisted writers, does not surprise me, but very few of these critics have read even the full Longlist. The books that fell by the wayside during the judges' discussions simply did not measure up to the judges' exacting standards. As for the suggestion by one reporter that the list was dumbing down the prize - what nonsense!

The publication of the judges' Shortlist has also revealed what I detect as a major sea change in publishing. Usually the Long and Short lists are dominated by the names of well-known and established imprints - but not this year. Judges in my experience don't look at the colophons on the books they are reading. Imagine the surprise therefore when new or relatively unknown publishing houses from Wales, Scotland and Birmingham emerged on the Longlist. And even the Shortlist contains four independent imprints.

An author's agent with whom I discussed this, expressed no surprise: the biggest firms, he said, are going more for the tried and tested. It is the newer publishers who are taking risks. One title on the Shortlist had been turned down by a list of publishers into double figures. Only when the judges had agreed their Shortlist did I think of checking: this year the Shortlist includes two first novels, Snowdrops by A D Miller and Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. Is it significant that both drew their inspiration from real events? Any thought that the novel is dead must be dismissed.

Each year I find myself impressed anew by the judges' perspicacity. Here we have five readers from a rich variety of backgrounds and each responds differently to what is put before them. At this stage I still have no idea which novel will emerge as the victor on 18th October. Sometimes it is clear from earlier meetings, but a third reading in the space of months is tough on any novel, particularly those that are plot driven. When from the first reading you learn the denouement it becomes essential at subsequent readings that other ingredients come into play: the quality of writing, of dialogue, of characterisation.

This year's press conference to announce the shortlist was high grade. Stella Rimington, our chair, asked each judge to talk for a couple of minutes on a particular title in the Shortlist. We had not in my experience done this before. As a result when the conference was opened to questioning the reporters present were able to go into greater detail about specific titles, few of which they had read.

Inevitably the omission of one particular title was pounced upon. How could the judges have eliminated the favourite, Alan Hollingshurst's The Stranger's Child? The short answer from the chair was difficult to refute: that the judges had found six titles that they preferred. And of course it was only the favourite because two bookies said so! But all the judges wished to emphasise that for any book to reach the Shortlist should be seen as an achievement in itself.

 

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