So tomorrow the Man Booker shortlist is announced. I’ve read every word of every novel on it (and am very grateful to the publicists and agents who let me have proof copies of the titles yet to be published). This year’s long list attracted a great deal of attention for its lack of diversity. But of course, as the website swiftly pointed out, the Man Booker prize is not obliged to represent writers from a range of backgrounds, or represent men and women equally – it exists solely to reward writing that is, in the opinion of the judges, the best of what’s been nominated. And one of those judges, Erica Wagner, wrote a persuasive piece in the Guardian Review asking readers to please just go and read the books. So I did.
This year, more than any other, I find myself desperate to know what was nominated. The long list is heavy on the angst of older men from privileged backgrounds who struggle to relate to women. Many of them are fine novels, but they carry a strange atmosphere of déjà vu – or rather, déjà lu. Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Richard Power’s Orfeo, David Nicholl’s Us, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Whether through the drive of genius, the historical settings, or their own upbringing, these male protagonists struggle to form and maintain relationships, and suffer as a result. There’s much to admire. The cod-Anglo Saxon Kingsnorth created for The Wake is mesmeric, and Flanagan creates a compelling picture of the horror and hopelessness of the Japanese prisoner of war camps. The ending of The Dog will remain with me for a long time. But the material feels oddly familiar. The trope of the capable, intelligent and generous woman who makes every allowance for the special emotional needs of the man she loves, but is driven away through no fault of her own, feels manufactured, and ripples through half the longlist. In the same vein, more nuance among the women of Mukherjee’s privileged family would have given more resonance to the relation of the effects of the Communist risings in India upon their lives.
The judges aren’t the only ones with opinions, and allowances must be made for purely personal responses – the twist in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves didn’t work for me, although I loved the central character and the writing itself; a protagonist who refers to being in a relationship with a woman as being ‘cunt-gripped’ alienates me from the outset (sorry, Joshua). Howard Jacobson is a writer with a fearsome critical reputation and enviable pedigree (he’s the only former winner on the longlist), but I struggled to engage with J. Perhaps I need to move on from the interview in which Jacobson said that watching his wife laughing at another man’s writing is akin to witnessing her committing adultery. I’ll also admit (and to avoid spoilers, I won’t mention titles) to preferring a layered resolution over a simply happy or simply miserable one.
I was grateful for the anger and outrage of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, and for the dangerous games of her flawed, raw heroine; I loved the unapologetic energy and strength of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. Both feature such fresh writing; vibrant and scintillating. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks will satisfy all who love his other novels. His heroine lives and breathes, as does the whimsical heroine of Niall Williams’ History of the Rain, although I have some sympathy with readers who’ve found the faux-naïve responses of the young, seriously ill woman to the works of literature she devours on her sickbed grating; nevertheless, these two women stand out among the male-penned female characters of the long list.
What do we want from the Man Booker? Does the inclusion of Nicholls, Ferris, Williams and Fowler suggest a blurring of the popular/literary boundary? That would be good – after all, novels can be both – but if that’s the case, where’s Sarah Waters? She can’t be kept out of the major prizelists forever. And such omissions! Susan Barker’s The Incarnations is an explosive firework of a ride through Chinese cultural history. Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, Monique Roffey’s House of Ashes – wonderful novels that would have given the long list more passion and more breadth (feel free to leave a comment and add to this list). In the opinion of the judges is the only way to run such a prize, but readers have opinions too, and a prize that looks too far backwards will run the risk of becoming irrelevant. And for the record, my heart’s with Ali Smith; my money’s on David Mitchell, though, and if I lost it, I wouldn’t mind.
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
Ali Smith, How to be both
Niall Williams, History of the Rain
Richard Powers, Orfeo
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.