Once an author has won the Man Booker Prize, all their subsequent novels are automatically considered for the prize in coming years. But other writers must hope to be one of the two nominations each publishing imprint is allowed to put forward – or be one of those called in by a member of the jury. This usually makes the Booker a one-step forward, two-steps backwards kind of prize – occasionally championing an unusual, deserving novel or two in the longlist before pushing safer, more predictable choices towards the final stretch.
Of the twenty winners between 1997 and 2017, nine have been historical fiction. It’s not that those novels didn’t deserve recognition and readership, but just that the Booker’s seemingly broad scope (novels in English published in the UK and Ireland by authors of any nationality) ultimately rewards certain kinds of writing more than others.
The mission of the prize is difficult to pin down, and it’s unclear whether it is interested at all in either audience or innovation. Neither is a pre-requisite for good books, but this prize often mystifies critics and readers with its choices. More than a few times, I’ve picked up novels emblazoned with the words “Winner of the Man Booker Prize”, only to be utterly disappointed or bored, and (most of all) baffled, because the year has seen far more interesting literature than the one that will proceed to sell in large numbers because of this accolade.
When Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won in 2008, it exasperated many readers in India for what Manjula Padmanabhan described as “schoolboyish sneering.” In the New York Times, Akash Kapur commended the novel’s venturing into murkier waters, but found the characterisation of evils in India “monotonous” and the construction of characters “superficial.” It was, along with other winners like Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance Of Loss and Anne Enright’s The Gathering, a book that I couldn’t plough through.
Sometimes, these novels bring essential truths to light – in Adiga’s case the treatment of domestic staff in India and in Enright’s case the silence around abuse in Ireland. None of these are terrible books, but I’ve personally found it a waste of resources (time and money) to read books simply because they’ve won or been shortlisted for the Booker. The Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously known as the Orange Prize and the Bailey’s Prize) remains a far more reliable judge of a book’s ability to tell compelling stories that engages readers.
The archives of the Booker Prize, released by the British Library, reveal a far-reaching pattern that had already been hinted at by irate jury members such as AL Kennedy, who declared the judging process was “a pile of crooked nonsense” whose outcome was determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”
The archives informed the public that one year’s winner was decided by a coin toss, that jury members had recused themselves because they objected to the amount of sexual content in the entries, and that the winning novel was sometimes the entry most violently opposed by one of the jury members. Giles Folden documented the process the year he judged in detail, and explained that “the first choice of one was often the sixth or fifth choice of another”. Simply put, the process is driven by the composition of the year’s jury and the ways in which their opinions clash and combine with each other.
There isn’t an argument to be made that winning titles must appeal to everyone, but the two books per imprint policy and considering books written by all previous winners narrows the purview of the prize – keeping its circles small. In that regard, this year’s longlist was a welcome expansion of the Booker’s horizons by including the crime thriller Snap by Belinda Bauer and the graphic novel Sabrina by Nick Drnaso. Five of the thirteen novels were by millennial voices. But the conversion of the longlist into a shortlist became an exercise in expunging most of the braver inclusions. The six novels still in the running consist of three striking works of fiction, and three that are less so.
Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a stunning novel centred around the desire to save the little forest land that remains untouched in the North America. The lives of four people, in vastly different ways, are defined by their interactions with trees, and they come together in this novel to present a last stand against the destruction of a force that has sheltered and strengthened each of them at some point.
Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black follows on the heels of books such as Colson Whithead’s The Underground Railroad and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing that explore anew the stories and legacy of slavery. Her protagonist is a young man who must contend with the guilt of being freed at a time where most remain enslaved, while tentatively making the most of his freedom. His work as the assistant to a scientist is a nod to the unacknowledged contribution of African-Americans to science. Edugyan’s carefully considered novel is one of the strongest in the list.
Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, which is also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, is a novel that combines prose and verse. Robertson is a very well-regarded poet who has won every category in the Forward Poetry Prizes. It’s little wonder when one reads the opening line of his poem, Exposure,
“Rain, you said, is silence turned up high.”
Set in the aftermath of World War II, The Long Take follows an exhausted Canadian soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder as he travels the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York in pursuit of a new life as a reporter. Inspired by the film noir of the 40s and 50s, the verse is interlaced with numerous discussions on films. It isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, but it is well-written. The three novels above are a cut above the following three contenders.
Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under is the story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship, complicated by abandonment and advancing old age. As their roles are reversed towards the end of the mother’s life, they piece together the haunted story of Gretel’s childhood on a canal boat until her mother leaves her at the age of sixteen. Johnson is the youngest person (by a month) to be shortlisted. Though Johnson’s dreamlike language and fantastical elements have charmed many readers, others have found it rife with melodrama with its sentences reaching for overarching generalisations such as “the places we are born come back.”
Anna Burns’ Milkman is set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland in an unnamed city (presumed to be Belfast). The characters are referred to as middle sister, third brother-in-law, nearly boyfriend, the Milkman and so on. The novel focuses on an eighteen-year-old girl who finds herself at the unfortunate intersection of civil strife, patriarchy, gossip and coercion when a paramilitary officer called the Milkman begins to take an unwanted and unrelenting interest in her. It’s a novel that refreshingly chooses subtlety instead of gratuitous violence.
Finally, The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner closes out the shortlist with a novel set in a women’s correctional facility in California where Romy Hall is serving out two consecutive life sentences. The novel shows how even resourceful and resilient women like Romy can end up in prison in the face of lifelong poverty and abuse. She has a seven-year-old child on the outside to whom she has lost access. Romy’s life behind bars offers a complex portrait of defence lawyers, other prisoners, and staff at these facilities. Kushner’s strength lies in her ability to sympathise without romanticising or condoning these women though the multiple subplots can be overwhelming at times.