Man Booker shortlist sets off literary storm

Fully booked: The shortlist of six was whittled down from 144 submissions. © Getty

Does it make sense to rank novels like horses? The six nominees for the highly prestigious Man Booker fiction prize have been announced. As always, the choices are very contentious.

Abraham Lincoln grieves at his son’s tomb in the dead of night. Two refugees teleport out of their country via a magic door. A 101-year-old former songwriter hallucinates in a care home, watched over by his only friend.

Welcome to the books on the shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, which was announced on Wednesday. The prize, which is open to new English-language novels, is the most influential literary award in the UK (and perhaps the world). Every year, the shortlist grabs headlines — and ruffles feathers.

This year’s six nominated authors are a varied bunch. Three are American, two British, one Pakistani. They are evenly split across the sexes.

Veterans like Ali Smith, whose entry Autumn has been described as “the first Brexit novel”, are vying with novices. Remarkably, 29-year-old Fiona Mozley from Yorkshire has been selected for her debut novel Elmet, which she wrote on her smartphone while commuting.

The list has created a storm in the literary world. The nominees are celebrating — ”I already feel like I’ve won,” says Mozley. Critics are bemoaning the choices. Bookmakers are taking bets (George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is the favourite). And, as ever, sceptics are questioning whether the Man Booker should exist at all.

Writers have competed for prizes for millennia; the Ancient Greeks were fond of handing them out. But they have proliferated in the last century, and particularly in recent decades.

There are now hundreds of major awards in the English-speaking world alone. They can make or break a novel: after it won the 2015 Man Booker, sales of Jamaican writer Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings jumped by 933%.

This gives judges a lot of power. However, their choices are necessarily subjective and always meet with heavy criticism. Indeed, the judges sometimes criticise each other. This leads some to conclude that novels are not meant to be ranked, and that literary awards are pointless affairs which unfairly skew the market.

Would readers be better off if awards were abolished?

The write stuff

“Yes,” say some. Authors write to express themselves, not to beat others. Literary excellence can’t be measured in goals or metres. Literature is not a sport. By turning it into one, these awards create the impression that only a handful of novels deserve to succeed. They do more harm than good to fiction.

“Come off it,” reply others. It is human nature to rank things. Not only do these awards give deserved recognition (and much-needed money) to the winners, the competitive aspect gets people interested in the book market in general. They encourage us to discuss what makes for great literature. That can only be a good thing.

You Decide

  1. Read about the six nominees in the BBC’s article in Become An Expert. Which would you most like to read and why?
  2. Are literary awards a force for good?

Activities

  1. By what criteria should judges pick a winner? As a class, come up with a list of qualities that all good novels must have.
  2. Imagine the Man Booker is presenting a one-off award for the best English-language novel ever published. What do you think should win? Explain your choice in a 500-word letter to the selection committee.

Some People Say...

“‘Classic’ — a book which people praise and don't read.”

— Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Man Booker has been held annually since 1969. Historically, the prize was only awarded to British, Commonwealth, Irish or Zimbabwean authors; it was opened to anyone writing in English in 2014. Last year, Paul Beatty became the first American to win for his racial satire The Sellout. This year’s winner will be announced on October 17th. He or she will receive £50,000.
What do we not know?
Who will win. Until Wednesday, Colson Whitehead’s surreal slavery epic The Underground Railroad was tipped to get the prize. After its controversial failure to make the shortlist, Saunders’s experimental novel about the ghost world inhabited by Lincoln’s dead son became the favourite. That said, the judges change every year and the winners are notoriously hard to predict.

Word Watch

New English-language novels
The book must have been published in the UK in the preceding 12 months.
Perhaps the world
Other rivals for the title include the Pulitzer Prize in the USA and the Nobel Prize for Literature. The latter recognises a writer for their entire body of work, not just one book.
Ali Smith
The Scot has been nominated three times before, but never won. Autumn was quickly written in the months after the Brexit vote, and deals explicitly with the referendum’s fallout. Three more books in Smith’s Seasonal series will follow.
Elmet
Mozley’s dark book tells the tale of a violent Yorkshireman’s struggle to defend his home, which he built himself, against aggressive landlords. The novel takes its name from the last Celtic kingdom in England; its location is now known as Yorkshire.
Ancient Greeks
Tragedies and comedies would be staged in competition, particularly at religious festivals in Athens; a panel of judges would rank them.
Criticise each other
In 1994, one of the Man Booker judges was famously unhappy with the choice of winner, saying of it: “Frankly, it’s crap.”