One of the most anticipated events of the cultural calendar is the announcement of the Booker Prize winner in October. The Booker Prize was first awarded in 1969, and has survived controversies over everything from the choice of judges to the decision in 2013 to allow submissions from the USA. This year, for the first time, entries from Ireland were permitted. The prize aims to reward exceptional literary talent and this year’s longlist (The Booker ‘Dozen’), announced on 23rd July, comprises 13 titles. Six of the longlisted authors are from the UK, and two from Ireland. The list is determinedly Westerncentric, with the remaining authors coming from the USA and Canada.
Refreshingly, some would say, middle-aged, middle-class white male heavyweights such as Julian Barnes and Alan Hollinghurst, who might have been expected to make the list, were largely eschewed in favour of less well-known names. The most well-known nominees are Michael Ondaatje (best known for “The English Patient”), who is in on the list with a historical novel, “War Light”, and Richard Powers, whose environmental-themed novel “The Overstory” has also earned a place on the list.
For the first time, the list includes a graphic novel, Sabrina, which has attracted much media attention, apparently much to the discomfort of its writer, Nick Drnaso. Andrew Holgate, the literary editor of the Sunday Times, who has recently declared the Booker “bust”, is one critic to oppose Drnaso’s inclusion. He feels that in including “Sabrina” on the longlist “you may as well include film or play scripts, or libretti. Books that are predominantly pictorial are a different art form.” Others disagree, and assert that “Sabrina” is effectively a work of literary fiction, in graphic novel form. No doubt the debate will rumble on. It will be interesting to see whether graphic novels will make it onto subsequent lists.
I found the inclusion on the list of “Snap” by Belinda Bauer more startling. I was surprised to see a piece of genre crime fiction on the longlist. I found it enjoyably silly and even funny in places – a fantastic holiday read, but I’ll be stunned if it has made the grade to be included on the shortlist. I suspect Val McDermid’s role of Booker judge this year has influenced its inclusion on the list at all – she has publicly endorsed the book as the best work of crime fiction she’s read for some time. Some people I’ve spoken to have questioned her appointment as a judge at all, though she’s undoubtedly a highly intelligent and extremely commercially successive writer.
The list contains four debut novelists. One of these is Scottish poet Robin Robertson. His “The Long Take” is a genre-bending prose poem, featuring a man struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in the Second World War, and trying to make his way in a filmic, noir post-war America. The imagery and writing is consistently beautiful, but the America it conjures up is unrelentingly bleak. Contemporary America isn’t described any more positively: “The Mars Room” by established author Rachel Kushner is set in the US female prison system. Although lightened in places by bleak humour, it veers close to becoming a polemic. Kushner handles multiple narratives with panache, and this work is a confidently composed state of the nation novel.
Daisy Johnson, born in 1990, is a young debut novelist, listed for “Everything Under”. Her previous, much-lauded work “Fen” was a collection of short stories, which is strange and beautiful, and conjures up a contemporary world, set in the Fens, in which her largely female protagonists inhabit worlds that are strangely gothic or reminiscent of ancient folk tales. She’s definitely one to watch. Irish author Sally Rooney, also aged under 30, attracted commercial success and widespread praise for her Dublin-set first novel “Conversations with Friends”, which seems destined to become a book club favourite (and is, in fact, under discussion by my own book club in September!). Her longlisted novel “Normal People” has just been published, and has received glowing reviews from many of those who were lucky enough to read advance copies.
Although I may not concur with all the judges choices, I find the Booker longlist almost always offers an intriguing selection of literary fiction to temporarily slake my appetite for new and engaging fiction. After many years of longlist reading, I’m still engaged in following the prize, and I’m looking forward to the announcement of the shortlist on 20th September and the overall winner on 16th October.
Imogen Gladman, Fiction Editor of The Blue Nib, is a knowledgeable editor with 20 years of professional experience. She has expertise and qualifications in the fields of literary fiction, French literature and culture, classical studies, history of art and linguistics amongst others. London based, she is well placed for contacts in literary and cultural circles. She also has a strong social media presence which we hope will help to grow and develop The Blue Nib’s profile. Above all, she loves contemporary literary fiction, which she devours with endless enthusiasm. Imogen is looking forward to selecting fiction for The Blue Nib, and contributing reviews of books, theatre and other cultural events, along with articles and news items to the magazine and the online site.