The Man Booker Prize 2008
If there was ever a time to sit down and reflect on the good old days then that time is now. Those good old days, of course, pertain to the Man Booker Prize in the days before there was such a thing as the 21st Century. Is it any wonder that, when the Best Of The Booker public vote celebrated forty years of the prize, none of the shortlisted six knew what the Millenium Bug was? J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) seems a definite cut-off point. (In concession, if a panel hadn’t made that shortlist, Life Of Pi (2002) would no doubt have won the public vote.)
This year winner, after much ruby anniversary celebrations, the Man Booker Prize 2008 has gone to The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Fresh off the longlist announcement, I recall being happy with it. A nice jaunty little novel to kickstart the longlist before moving onto the heavier stuff. Two weeks later and it had faded. Now, two months on, I can barely remember a thing about it. It’s that sort of book.
My feelings are that, overall, this year will go down as one of the worst years in Booker history, if not the worst. Having enjoyed the experience of reading the longlist (or as much of it as possible) in recent years, this is the first year where I’ve started most of the books and finished only four. And it was only for an early sense of completion that I bothered to push past the opening of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. After John Berger’s epistolary From A To X failed to deliver, Mohammed Hanif’s A Case Of Exploding Mangoes imploded, and Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog was found sniffing its own arse, I lost all faith in this year’s Booker delivering on the best Commonwealth books of the year.
Maybe it’s just me overreacting, as a reader, but I don’t think so. There are far too many marching in step on this one. When the longlist was announced on 29th July, many were surprised on the Man Booker discussion forum. Not at what was there, but what hadn’t made the cut. For example, where were, amongst many others, the following?
- The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam
- His Illegal Self, Peter Carey
- Sputnik Caledonia, Andrew Crumey
- The Imposter, Damon Galgut
- The Cellist Of Sarajevo, Steve Galloway
- The Spare Room, Helen Garner
- Keiron Smith, Boy, James Kelman
- Pilcrow, Adam Mars-Jones
- Trauma, Patrick McGrath
- The Truth Commissioner, David Park
- Breath, Tim Winton
- Carpentaria, Alexis Wright
The longlist was, in the opinion of many observers on the Booker forum, mostly substandard. The blame for this can only fall to the judging panel. Returning to those good old days, Booker judging panels have been graced by such eminent names as Saul Bellow, George Steiner, and Malcolm Bradbury. This year’s panel was chaired by Michael Portillo, who said he didn’t read all of the books; Hardeep Singh-Kohli, to whom Harry Potter is great literature; and Louise Doughty, who appears to have more than one bee in her bonnet.
The first, commenting on the shortlist:
“Ignore the moaners and vested-interest commentators who have read a fraction of what we have this year but still feel entitled to bellow at us about just how wrong we are.”
Since the longlist is just a patchwork of opinions from a select panel, does it make their choices any more worthy? I don’t think so. Even if they have read the majority, if not all, of the submitted titles, most of them won’t shine and can be readily discarded. Not to forget either that many people will have read a mixture of eligible titles – some longlisted, some not – and are quite within their rights to call a poor year when they see it.
The second, even more ridiculous, was her attack on male academics sitting on judging panels:
… such men should not be invited on to judging panels as they “always have their eye on their reputations” and are too concerned with picking a “highbrow” author rather than a readable one. She added that they tended to made [sic] judgements based on “how well the winning book reflected on them”, often choosing the most obscure and self-consciously highbrow novelist, rather than considering the best entry.
…Academics automatically feel [the choice of Booker winner] will reflect on their career,” she said.
Is she serious? Perhaps she’s intent on dragging its prestige down so that one day she’ll win it. If she wants readable she’d be better signing up for Richard & Judy’s Book Club, or casting a vote at the Galaxy Awards. Still, what should we expect from the author of a how to write a book by numbers book?
In response to her ridiculous comments, Professor John Sutherland, in a moment of rare clarity (this is the guy, after all, who thought Salman Rushdie would win, reneging on a promise to curry his proof and eat it), said:
…that Doughty’s comments were unfair: “if she said it, ‘male academics’ is as offensive as it would be to say too many ‘female novelists’ are chosen as panellists. I don’t, of course, believe that they are, or that female novelists can be lumped together any more than male academics can.”
With the year arguably the worst in Booker history and the judging panel suffering a drought of academics, it only illustrates that Doughty’s opinions are served best with a pinch of salt. The Booker should strive to reward, in the opinion of the panel, the best book that the Commonwealth has to offer for that year. It should strive to recognise a book that can compete with the likes of Midnight’s Children to some day be the best of the Booker. Not ephemera.
Congratulations to Mr. Adiga.
Here are some opinons on The White Tiger from around the blogosphere.
- Complete Review
- dovegreyreader scribbles
- Guardian Book Blog
- Lizzy’s Literary Life
- Mookse and the Gripes
- Of Cabbages And Kings
- Redhead Rambles
- Shelf Love
- The Kingfisher Scrapbook
October 15, 2008