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The Man Booker Prize

The Man Booker Prize is one of my favorite book prizes not because it always chooses an excellent book (or even a good book, for that matter) but because it has become a bookreading institution.  I know of no other prize that stirs up as much conversation as the Booker Prize does with its longlist and shortlist.  I still remember during the 2004 shortlist season (the best of recent shortlists — perhaps the best of shortlists) speaking to my cabdriver in London about whether Cloud Atlas should win the prize.  I love the shortlist displays in Great Britain bookstores.  Indeed, the months August to October are better thanks to the Man Booker Prize.

For those of you who are interested, I recommend visiting and potentially joining The Complete Booker Challenge.

Click here for the Man Booker website.

Click here for a list of past winners.

40 thoughts on “The Man Booker Prize”

  1. My personal favorite of the longlist was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. We’ll see if it does better here in America.

    As for the shortlist, here are my rankings:
    1. The Clothes on Their Backs.
    2.
    Sea of Poppies
    3. A Fraction of the Whole
    4. The Secret Scripture (because of its awful ending)
    5. The White Tiger
    6. The Northern Clemency

    This list almost coincides with my rankings of the longlist, only I’d have kicked out my bottom two to make room for Netherland and From A to X.

  2. KevinfromCanada says:

    My ranking is:

    1. The Clothes on Their Backs (American readers definitely should check into this book and author — she is very good)
    2. Sea of Poppies
    Large gap.
    3. The Secret Scipture (could be tied with 4).
    4. A Fraction of the Whole — I suspect my age effects my appreciation of this book. I’d love to see what a reader in her/his 30s thinks of it.
    Major, major gap.
    6 tied. — The White Tiger, The Northern Clemency. I freely acknowledge I am stealing from John Self with this device of listing a joint last place — they are both not very good. What I find interesting is that when I reread The White Tiger, its failings became even more apparent. I haven’t reread The Northern Clemency (and won’t unless it wins) but I do admit that the better parts of the novel (and there aren’t very many for a 700+ page book) do come to mind every now and then.

    I didn’t like Netherland when I first read it but from the blogs discussion, it has certainly moved up my list. I expect to see it listed for some U.S. prizes — I can understand why UK judges passed on it. I too liked From A to X and do recommend it to serious novel readers. Trevor didn’t like The Lost Dog — I did. Give it a try.

    Thanks for opening this space, Trevor. The UK owns the book prize world in the mid-summer months — now the attention starts to turn to North American fiction. It is most heartening to have a place to discuss those books.

  3. I had never heard of Louise Doughty until she was chosen to be on the Booker panel this year, and frankly I hope to forget her soon after she’s finished tonight. After a snide blog about how readers shouldn’t listen to the “moaners” who say they’ve chosen the wrong books, today she said that “male academics” shouldn’t be put on judging panels. Click here.

    I really don’t think she has the capacity to judge the Booker. If she must use flippant generalities because she cannot distinguish between good and bad “male academics,” then how can her judgment on anything about literature be trusted. Then again, she’s already shown her inability to pick out good literature.

    Sadly, she has a point that some people confuse obfuscation for brilliance. But now I can see why she also cannot tell the difference between the two. Perhaps she was confused by too many books and too many male academics when she was getting her education. And now she’s the snob she accuses a large portion of the Booker readers of being.

  4. Stewart says:

    The White Tiger won it, Trevor.

  5. Please feel free to share your thoughts about the winner here.

    My own thoughts: While I did enjoy this book when I read it through, it quickly faded. In all honesty, it reminded me of such things as Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident . . .. A book that makes you think a bit while reading it, but that didn’t do much beyond that. If this is the kind of book that deserves to be placed above all others of the year, then I have to give props to Ms. Doughty. I don’t think many others would agree with her and the judges.

  6. KevinfromCanada says:

    What a terrible decision. It would seem to authenticate all your grumpy comments about Louise, Trevor. I’m thinking she only likes books where she can move her lips when she reads.

    I am certainly happier with the quality of the Giller shortlist, a condemnation of the hapless judges from this year’s Booker. And certainly look forward to the start of the National Book Award festival tomorrow — since the Booker judges have chosen to take a pew far behind Richard and Judy, it is only fitting that other juries move to the forefront.

  7. John Self says:

    There has been so much genuine praise for The White Tiger from other commentators on the Booker Prize forum that I began to wonder if I had completely misread it. Fortunately, the views of Kevin – who disliked it as much as I did – and Stewart and Trevor – both of whom liked it well enough at the time but have acknowledged that it hasn’t stood the test of time (a few weeks, never mind a few years!) – reinforce my belief in my own judgement.

    No longlist Bookerthon for me next year, I suspect.

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    As much as I dislike the winner, I have to admit that my own Booker experience this year did introduce me to some very good books, many of which did not make even the longlist. By far the best thing about the Prize is the debate group (and most of that pre-longlist) where a host of very good books were discussed. And in the final analysis, I’m not sorry I read the whole longlist even if I did find some of them sorely lacking.

  9. I can’t decide right now whether I’ll read the longlist again next year. I’m sure by the time it comes around I’ll have regained some faith in the Booker, but if I were to decide right now or anytime in the next few months, I wouldn’t do it. It was too taxing this year. By about half-way I was no longer able to give the books a fair shot because I just wanted it to be over. And when it was over . . . what a relief!

  10. Stewart at booklit has written a post that perfectly expresses my thoughts on the year:
    here.

  11. John Self says:

    First thing, I think, will be to take a view on next year’s panel when it’s announced (in January?). Of this year’s, I trust Alex Clark – and feel sure she must have pushed for some better titles to be included – and am reliably informed that James Heneage is a trustworthy reader, but Portillo, Kohli and Doughty should be run out of town.

  12. Stewart says:

    Heneage and Clark are the only two that haven’t come out and said something stupid as far as I can recall.

  13. I’m interested that some unknown judge said that The Secret Scripture only narrowly lost. (I put the link under my post to Adiga).

    From the tone and the anonymity, I wonder if it was Heneage or Clark. My guess is that it was.

  14. KevinfromCanada says:

    I found the speculation about The Secret Scipture interesting — and conceivably accurate, since the author was at the dinner at Adiga’s table and seems to know the turf. It would explain Portillo’s literary vs. gritty comment, since the winner is obviously one and the Barry the other. Of course, as John Self has pointed out elsewhere, a truly great book can and often is both.

  15. Here is an interesting article in The Guardian by my absolute favorite judge, Louise Doughty. Click here.

    I find this quote interesting:

    One such was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which scraped its way on to the longlist despite our shared reservations because of its evocative portrayal of a post-9/11 New York.

    Those of you who read my blog during the Booker marathon know that my favorite was Netherland, but I understand some of its flaws. But this? Doesn’t an evocative portrayal sound like a good thing? Were their reservations because it described New York? Post-9/11? I don’t understand. Can anyone enlighten me?

  16. Does she mean that it made its way “because of its evocative portrayal” “despite our shared reservations”?

    After some help from my wife, I might understand what she meant, though she apparently doesn’t know how to construct a sentence. That’s enlightening.

    I should probably give Ms. Doughty the benefit of the doubt and assume that her editor (or a poor typist like me) put the article together.

  17. KevinfromCanada says:

    The former copy editor in me says that it is entirely possible that a copy editor (or sub-editor as the Brits call them) could certainly have taken out the commas or dashes which would have produced a more logical interpretation. Ms. Doughty obviously uses eliptical references frequently, if you read the rest of the excerpt, and this is the kind of thing that does get on the nerves of the grumpy old types who edit copy, who then go ahead and remove as much of the punctuation as possible. To not very good effect in this example.

  18. Mel Vogel says:

    Thanks for your work reviewing the novels on the 2008 Booker long list. Since I enjoy reading the books on each year’s short list, your comments have been and continue to be quite helpful to me.

    As of this writing, I’ve finished “The White Tiger” and “A Fraction of the Whole,” both of which I enjoyed, and I’ve just started “Sea of Poppies” (and my local library’s just e-mailed me that “The Secret Scripture” is ready for me to pick up. That’s what happens when you reserve more than one book — contrary to what you hope happens, they all become available at the same time.)

    “Tiger” represents the 13th Booker Prize book I’ve completed; of the short-listed books that did not win the Prize, I’ve completed 27 of those.

    Rather than select (most) American-originated fiction, I usually turn to the “Booker” books; occasionally, I’ll pick up a non-fiction work — many of those have been critiques of the U.S. presence in Iraq (plenty of those from which to choose in that category!), or books that are politically-based (the most outstanding of those was Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”; I’m currently part-way into Antonia Juhasz’s “The Tyranny of Oil.”

    Back to the Booker: to me, “Tiger” presents quite a contrasting view to the picture we in the West currently get of the “new” India — how much technological change and social justice have altered the country. Adiga’s anti-hero protagonist presents quite a different, scathing view.

    “Fraction” was quite a ride — it’s as if “Candide” had been told not only from the viewpoint of the main character but from his father as well.

    You may recall a line of text somewhat near the end of the book, when the female character Anouk, by now the widow of the media magnate’s son (his father seems to be a dead ringer for the real-life Rupert Murdoch), trying to convince Jasper to help her run her late husband’s conglomerate, says to him, “I think it would be fun to run a media empire.” (or words to that effect.)

    Reading that line caused me to smile, because of a similar line that I’ve always remembered, which is said by a character in Orson Welles’s wonderful film “Citizen Kane,” soon after the start of the movie.

    By now a young man about to inherit a huge fortune, instead of selecting a more lucrative occupation, Kane chooses to run a defunct New York City daily newspaper and writes to his guardian, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

    MEL

    October 30, 2008 9:25 A.M.

  19. Thanks Mel, I believe you and I joined “The Complete Booker” Challenge at roughly the same time earlier this year, so I’m glad you’ve had the chance to add your comments to this blog as well. As you can tell, I haven’t had a chance yet to update the content of this particular page (so much to do!) but I hope that happens soon.

    I’m glad you liked A Fraction of the Whole and The White Tiger. I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said either were particularly memorable a few months later. I think they got burried by what I considered better books. That said, you comment above refreshed my memory about some aspects I did enjoy from those two books! Best wishes for completing the rest of this year’s shortlist!

  20. The judging panel for the 2009 Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday. First, there’s an academic. But I’m curious to get the perspective of anyone who knows anything about the judges.

    Please let me know your take.

  21. Trevor says:

    Here’s a quote from the Man Booker site’s blog.

    As for the quality of the submissions, James Naughtie has already gone on record that this promises to be a vintage year. To which one should add the adjective ‘another’. Last year’s winner, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger has proved hugely popular with the public, selling more than half a million copies, with one of the runners up, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture not far behind.

    Here’s hoping that Naughtie left out the word “another” because he did not think last year was a vintage year. Sales for the winner do not make the year a vintage year. I thought last year was awful. I hope that by vintage Naughtie means it’s looking like it’s 2004 again.

  22. Good point Trevor. According to the NY Times, East of Eden (hardly an unknown work) sold 1.6 million copies after Oprah picked it — Anna Karenina “only” went up to 960,000. So sales figures might not be the best criteria for measuring Booker success.

    And last year’s Booker did have quite a few good books, the problem was that the jury put so few of them on the shortlist and, in my humble opinion, made a very bad choice when it picked Adiga as the winner (although I didn’t like The Secret Scripture much either). I’ve certainly read some good possibilities this year (The Glass Room and Burnt Shadows would be top of my list so far I think) but I haven’t come across a “must-read” yet.

  23. John Self says:

    Yes, I noted Naughtie’s comment with interest. I do think this is potentially a better year, not because of the books but because of the judges – no novelty TV presenter (you north Americans really need to see Hardeep Singh Kohli to believe him), no ex politician, no chicklit novelist.

    I am unsure whether the calibre of eligible entries is notably higher. There are certainly some big and medium sized names eligible this year – Toibin, Dyer, Mantel, Byatt – but they are producing books which (a) in the case of the first two, are good but not their best work, or (b) in the case of the second two, I am not remotely interested in reading, and if ‘forced’ to by a shortlisting, would approach with active resentment.

    I am certainly unprepared for the Booker this year, as I’ve read very little qualifying stuff – but you know what? I’ve enjoyed my reading year so far much more as a result – not necessarily because the books are better, but because I’m not choosing books to read based on whether or not they might get longlisted.

  24. I’d add Sarah Waters, Anne Michaels and the book about the Robin Hood myth to John’s books that aren’t interesting (and I’ve read the Michaels) to me that could make a long list — one advocate is usually enough to get a book on. So I don’t plan on making any long list decision until I see it. I’ve completed the short list for so many years that I think I will still make the effort, although nothing will convince me to read the Atwood.

    I also find it interesting that after seeing so many titles from Down Under last year, I can’t seem to find any this year.

  25. Trevor says:

    I’m hoping that many of the early contenders are pushed down for some new, surprising authors. John’s recommendation of Adam Foulds is encouraging, and I hope that some quality comes from unexpected places. So, it would be fine with me if Waters, Michaels, Atwood, Toibin, Byatt, and even Ishiguro didn’t make the list because new authors performed better this year.

  26. Trevor says:

    Here’s a question regarding this “vintage year” thing. What, to you, are some vintage years for the Booker Prize? How do you define “vintage year”?

    For me, those are years where the winner is greater than the Booker Prize itself. In other words, these are years when the prize recognizes true literary greatness and not where the prize bestows “literary greatness” on a book. A vintage year is a year that makes us excited for Booker season, even though there has been a severe drought recently.

    I’m thinking of years like 1999, 1990, 1989, 1981. I also would add 1978 on there, but I’m not sure others would agree. These years had exceptional winners. I would also add 2004 where the whole shortlist was worthy of the win, collectively making that year stand out to me as a vintage year. Now, I’ve only read half of the winners, so I assume I’m missing some great ones, particularly from the early days.

    Unfortunately, I think that last year was a terrible year for the Booker, not just because of the sub-par list (though that’s part of it), but because I’m pretty confident that last year’s jury would not have awarded the prize to Disgrace, Possession, The Remains of the Day, and perhaps not even to Midnight’s Children (but maybe because it was a year to recognize literature focusing on the Indian subcontinent). While The White Tiger is selling well, it is not a book that suggests the Booker has the right to bestow literary greatness on anything. Rather, it was a year that, to me, to me, detracted from the prize as a whole. To me, 2008 will be memorable as an infamous year.

  27. Deucekindred says:

    Personally I think a vintage year is when all the shortlisted books are so great that you can’t even figure out the winner.

    I started following the booker prize seriously in 1997 so here are my ‘vintage’ years

    1997 (did not read the essence of the thing)
    1999 (did not read the blackwater lightship)
    2002 (read all)

    The last booker winner i enjoyed thoroughly was Life of Pi and I found Vernon God Little fun.

  28. Colette Jones says:

    I haven’t been following the Booker long enough to specify an opinion on a vintage year, but I think I can agree that 2008 was not one of them, though I did like some of the books quite a lot.

    The White Tiger was a disappointing win. I tried twice to read it and was too annoyed to continue by page 20 both times.

    The previous year was very good for me, as Enright’s The Gathering was my favourite and I liked all of the short list bar one – Darkmans.

  29. Trevor says:

    I like your definition of a vintage year, Duecekindred. I have only read all of the shortlist, or most of the shortlist, in a few years though, so I can’t comment too much. I do always like coming acroos shortlist gems that suprise me. J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country was like that for me, making me want to read more from the year he didn’t win.

    Colette, I did like the shortlist in 2007, but for some reason all of them felt quick and insubstantial in the end. I guess to me most of them felt like early novels or minor novels by great novelists. My favorite that year was The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but even that one had me slightly annoyed by its dramatic monologue style at times. At others, though, I was completely enthralled by the themes of identity.

    I do enjoy that we all have different opinions on what were good Booker years.

  30. I’ve been pondering your vintage quesstion since you posted it. Part of that was because before I got into online book-buying four or five years ago the Booker was a very different experience. Usually only about half the shortlist was available in Canada before the winner was announced and finding even those volumes was hit and miss. So my Booker reading tended to start late in the year — post-Giller — with the winner and whatever shortlist titles looked interesting, because by then the bookshops were paying attention. Like deucekindred, one of my vintage definitions then would be overall shortlists — I tend to agree with both your assessments.

    Then there is the vintage definition of years with an outstanding winner from an author that I didn’t previously know — I’m afraid I’m old enough and have been reading Bookers long enough that Coetzee, Rushdie and Byatt all fit that category. More recently, Vernon God Little and The Line of Beauty are books that I probably would not have found were it not for the Booker.

    But my favorite definition for Booker vintage years are those in which we went to London for a fall visit during Booker season (2003 and 2005 were the most recent). Day one always concluded with a visit to Hatchards in Picadilly to buy the entire shortlist (much raised eyebrows behind the counter), which usually had been read by the time the vacation was over. The quality of those vintages was always high and had nothing to do with the quality of the list at all. Even last year’s would have been just fine.

  31. Trevor says:

    I definitely like the personal element you add to the definition, Kevin. That is definitely one reason why 2004 was so memorable to me. I think I’ve explained that somewhere on here already, so I’ll refrain. Last year will be very memorable for me also because it was the first year I seriously engaged with the longlist and with so many other readers on this and other blogs.

  32. Colette Jones says:

    I would have to agree that 2004 was a great year for the Booker even though I have only read 3 of the shortlist, not including the winner. However, I have the other 3 and want to read them. I’ll Go To Bed At Noon (you might not be surprised to hear) is my favourite so far.

  33. I do have that trilogy on the wishlist for the next order and it is all because of your webname, Colette. You have been warned.

  34. Colette Jones says:

    Oh dear.

  35. Trevor says:

    What makes up that “trilogy”?

  36. August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and Curious Earth. The blogging world as well as Colette seems to feel that I’ll Go To Bed At Noon is be far the best, August quite good, the concluding book not that good. They also say they don’t have to be read in order but given my interest in the “reportage” aspect of books reading them in order is what appeals to me — the three go from the 60s to the 70s to the 80s and that is a particularly interesting period in British history. Even if the main theme is a family story, I usually find that kind of context spread over three volumes interesting. And since Colette took her nom-de-web from the trilogy I know it must be good. :)

  37. Colette Jones says:

    I would definitely say you should read them in order. The first to make you care, the second to make you cry, and the third because you still care.

  38. Trevor says:

    I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, but tomorrow, Tuesday, July 28, the shortlist is going to be announced.

    I won’t be here when it does because I’m getting up early to take the New York bar exam (wish me luck!), but I’m anxious to see what is selected tomorrow night when I get back to my hotel room thoroughly exhausted. The bar exam runs on Wednesday too, so I’ll be late jumping in the fray — and I’m still not sure how much I’ll participate this year. I don’t start working at my firm until mid-September, and while you’d think that means I’ll have plenty of time to read, I read on my commute. It’s a thousand times harder to read when there’s plenty of time to spend with family. We’ll see though! One thing’s for certain, the book reviews’ schedule is getting tightly packed, so there’ll be no shortage of those even if I don’t join the longlist challenge this year.

  39. Trevor says:

    I have to say I like the list, for the most part. I’m really not interested (yet) in Me Cheeta, and I don’t think I’ll read it unless I start to feel I’m missing something. Also, from what I’ve heard about it, I’m not interested in Not Untrue & Not Unkind.

    However, The Quickening Maze, The Wilderness, Brooklyn, The Children’s Book, The Glass Room are all books I’ve been wanting to read for a while now. I’m also interested in Wolf Hall, though I’m a bit sceptical. Also, I’ll give The Little Stranger a shot and go into with low expectations. Heliopolis is a surprise to me, but I’m intrigued. And, of course, we have Coetzee and Trevor (I’m reading Foe right now, and I’ve always found I like Coetzee’s stuff — Trevor I’m a bit more wary off because what I’ve read in The New Yorker hasn’t been my cup of tea).

    Okay, happy Booker season to everyone. I hope it pays off better this year than last. I already think it will.

  40. Trevor says:

    I’m curious about what people think of the jury’s all white, almost all British list. I’m one who hopes the book’s merits are the deciding factor though I’m also one who knows that there are always good books from a variety of authors, so there’s never a need for this type of list — or is there this year? Did anyone really want Adiga back on the list with Between the Assassinations?

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