This year’s Man Booker Prize, in its first outing since the controversial rule change, was widely tipped to be The Coming of the Americans writ large. Previously open only to novels by Commonwealth authors, this year the Man Booker is open to any book published in the UK in the relevant period – hence, USian authors are eligible, and were expected to dominate. On the eve of the longlist announcement, many pundits were tipping a longlist that was over half or even two-thirds American-authored, and some big name American writers were being touted as shoe-ins.
In the event, the 13-book longlist contains only four, or possibly four and a half, books by Americans; it’s also got six books by English writers (one of whom is Indian by origin), one from an Australian, and two from Irish authors (one of whom is also American, hence the “half” in the US count).
Notably, though, it’s also far scantier in representation of fiction written by neither USian nor British writers – compared with last year’s healthy cross-Commonwealth list, which featured titles from Zimbabwe, Australia, India, Canada and New Zealand (the winner, indeed, being New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries). If the intention of changing the rules was to open the door to a mored global prize, it hasn’t, on first blush, been very successful – the voices that dominate here are very traditional Anglophone ones, and there isn’t too much in the list to challenge UK/US centric perspectives.
It’s also, for the first time in a few years, a remarkably gender unbalanced list, with just three books by women, one of which, tagged as “the populist option”, is already tipped not to shortlist (Karen Joy Fowler’s lovely We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.) Granted, Ali Smith’s book is an early favourite, but three out of 13 seems like a pretty paltry number, especially given the available titles that weren’t selected. (Where, you might ask – along with many commentators – is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for example?)
The books longlisted are:
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)
Ferris, Fowler, Hustvedt, Powers and O’Neill are the USians on the list (O’Neill is Irish-American, so is being variously counted as Irish or American depending on the commentary). They’re an oddish collection, as American writers go, and certainly don’t appear to represent the most literary of USian output – possibly lending support to judge panel chair AC Grayling’s contention that readability and engagement were the key criteria in choosing the longlist.
Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is something of a genre-bender, being nominated for a Nebula Award (science fiction prize) earlier this year; it’s a wonderful, thoughtful, resonant book, but it’s also very accessible and not a difficult read. Hustvedt’s art-based The Blazing World, which I am halfway through at present, is gripping and cerebral but also not a labour to get through. Ferris’s book is, I am told, a comedy of sorts; it’s hardly the first time the Booker has played around with this (looking at you, 2012) but it’s not quite typical in a selection. The USians seem preoccupied with themes of Art and Life, or Art vs Life, this year, with Powers’ book, which has attracted very strong positive reviews, focusing on the intersection between music and life. O’Neill’s book is one of the few on the list overall that uses a non-British, non-American setting, so on those grounds alone it could be interesting.
One thing that the panel have done this year is to select no less than five – yes, five! – books that are not even released yet. Longlist aficionados the world over ground their teeth in frustration to see The Bone Clocks, Us, J, how to be both, and The Dog on the list – not because they aren’t likely to be good books, but because none of them are published yet, so reading them in advance of the shortlist is a rather difficult proposition. On first estimates, it’s likely at least two (The Bone Clocks and J) might end up being shortlist-worthy, with how to be both not far behind, but this is based only on the author and their previous form, and I think we all know how unreliable that is as a guide to book quality.
As usual, the judges want to tell us that this a longlist of ambition, breadth and depth, but this year more than most, that seems like a disingenuous claim, unless the measure for “ambition” is “talking about serious themes in a variety of quite engaging ways.”
I do not doubt there will be at least one, and possibly as many as three, stinkers on the list, but that is par for the course, for the Booker as for any prizelist. What’s of more interest is the overall scope, or lack thereof, in the titles that were selected, and here I think the judges have put together a reasonably safe, but not fantastically interesting, list.
There’s a bit of colour and movement provided by Flanagan’s book (by an Australian, set in a WWII POW camp), as well as Kingsnorth’s fascinating crowdfunded The Wake, a historical novel set in 1066 that bears the distinction of being the only book on the entire list not completely written in English (it’s written in “shadowtongue”, a blend of Middle and modern English). There are also some books that are likely to be luminous, extraordinary or lovely in their own right – Fowler’s and Hustvedt’s, for example, as well as, going by reviews, Powers’ Orfeo. David Mitchell’s work is always amazing, and much as Mukherjee’s themes are ones that have been well hashed in recent years, I’m told his is a particularly powerful treatment. I am looking forward to Smith’s book with great anticipation.
Overall, though, this is far from the most exciting or risk-taking Booker longlist of the past decade, and one of the least diverse in terms of authorship, themes, settings, language and focus. That isn’t to say these are bad books – most of them, I am confident, are very good books indeed. (I may modify that position after reading more, of course). They are, however, perhaps not the books (or not all of the books) that a Booker panel that really wanted a plurality of voices might have picked, and that is, in its own way, a shame.