Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Man Booker Longlist - some thoughts

I was asked recently to come up with my own longlist for the Man Booker prize and then jauntily told I'd be 'scored' on my predictions. Of course I wasn't trying to predict anything - how could I, when I've only read a fraction of the reported 154 submissions? I read about 60 novels a year and frankly that's quite enough. My list was just that - my own favourite 13.

As it happens, though, my score was low. Only Alan Hollinghurst and - a dark horse this - D J Taylor's Derby Day were on both lists. My first feeling upon looking at the real Man Booker longlist was bafflement. Who on earth were all these people? I hadn't heard of half of them. In a sense, Man Booker judges can never get it right. Too many established names and they're playing safe, not enough and they look wilfully out of touch.

Then I started looking at who was left off, and my bafflement increased. Justin Cartwright has bad luck with the Booker and Other People's Money sadly didn't buck the trend. But it took several reads of the list to realise that the unthinkable had happened. Yes, they really had overlooked Edward St Aubyn's At Last, the novel around which a steady buzz has been growing ever since publication a few months ago to rapturous reviews. Andrew Miller's Pure is another notable omission. There's no Ali Smith, John Burnside, Philip Hensher, Helen Oyeyemi, Amitav Ghosh...

My first Tweeted responses to the list (I was still in shock) were met with a few how-can-you-criticise-before-you've-read-them-all comments. Well, for one thing, the Man Booker longlist is published in order to boost sales and create word of mouth. While it might be nice if there were a three-week comment moritorium while we diligently work our way through all 13 titles, meanwhile, back in the real world... And obviously it's legitimate to comment on books that we have read, found brilliant, and which we feel have been mysteriously snubbed.

One publisher's loss is another publisher's gain, of course, and I tip my hat to Seren, Oneworld and Serpent's Tail who no doubt richly deserve their placing. It's hard to talk about omissions without offending people who are on the list, which is not my intention. I look forward to reading the longlisted titles. 

On further inspection the list comes into focus and there are some intriguing inclusions. I hadn't read Sebastian Barry's novel (will now) but he is hugely gifted, and I had also overlooked the Julian Barnes, which I've been told is superb. I'd already earmarked Pigeon English to read: it's gone to the top of the pile. Carol Birch is sadly underrated and Jamrach's Menagerie sounds wonderful. Jane Rogers is also a safe pair of hands (interesting to see she's now with a small publisher, Sandstone Press). Snowdrops created a buzz on publication. It's also good to see the strong Canadian presence.

It's been noted that there are four debuts on the list, and books from several independent publishers, who god knows, need a boost. I'm sure the judges are aware that the Man Booker is not a best first novel prize, or a prize for plucky independents, or a Fairy Godmother, 'with one tap of the wand I can make you famous' prize. It is for literary quality, and only literary quality. With that in mind, if all the longlisted books are as good as At Last we are in for a glorious booky summer.

Here's my own list of thirteen:

The Death of Eli Gold by David Baddiel
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge
Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright
The Blue Book by A L Kennedy
Gillespie & I by Jane Harris
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Childish Loves by Ben Markovits
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar
Pure by Andrew Miller
There but for the by Ali Smith
At Last by Edward St Aubyn
The Knife Drawer by Padrika Tarrant
Derby Day by D J Taylor

It's open to the accusation that they are mostly established names, but then they're established for a reason. Of course it reflects my own reading, making this a neatly circular exercise: these are the sort of books I pick out, and therefore, I like them... The benefit of judging any prize is the way it takes you out of your literary comfort zone - the only way we find new stuff, after all.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty good list. And if I were to come up with a shortlist, St Aubyn, Bainbridge (provided the deceased are eligible) and Miller would be on it: three concise and contrasting pieces of artistry that represent the very best of British fiction.


  1. I am still struggling with The Line of Beauty by Hollinghurst. I am really disappointed by it!

    I don't have much interest in literary prizes. But maybe that is because I know I will never win one!

    I thought to enter Polari but I just can't face it. The competition over quality, 'queerness', literary merit.

    I have this crazy confidence in the quality of my own writing. And though I do need some validation, and have actually gone quite literally 'crazy' trying to get it off some specific people, I don't have any desire to win a prize for my work.

    There- that proved me to be a typical self-centred writer!

    Now, back to the Booker... :D

  2. Good to see someone mentioning Justin Cartwright's ommission. If any of his recent novels seemed likely to make the list it was this one. Other People's Money is intelligent, incisive, witty, and on occastion desperately sad. More than anything else, though, it is effortlessly readable. In short, the sort of book that should be in the running, surely.

  3. Totally agree, Colin! Cartwright is shockingly overlooked generally by prize juries. Can't see why he's not spoken of in the same breath as Ian McEwan.

  4. Justin Cartwright's novel has now reached that tipping point of superlative praise from so many sources (as with John Burnside's new one) that I must finally read it. Thank you!