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Monday 13 August 2007

Booker prize: the very best book of the year?

I'm running out of time (again), so I doubt I'll post anything new here today: apologies for that. On Friday, though, over on Editor's Corner, I did write a longish blog about the Booker prize which might prove to be of interest:

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is an odd phenomenon. Each year, the Booker longlist (just 13-strong this year, previously a list of 20 titles), shortlist and winner casts a long shadow over the UK literary fiction scene, and defines what literary titles get pushed in the country's bookshops.

Gaining the prize is guaranteed exposure for the novel concerned and can fully establish the career of the writer who wins. This isn't always the case, of course: when controversial Scottish writer James Kelman won with his (astonishing and quite superb) How Late it Was, How Was he and his publisher simply provided an awful lot of books for the remainder shops! The book sold in its hundreds, not the usual tens of thousands that a Booker winner can expect these days. And Kelman's book seemed to be a turning point for the prize, for a few years after the committee steered clear of "difficult" titles and picked a crop of more populist winners in the subsequent years.

The Man Booker committee says the prize "promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year," but its rules (not least its stricture that any publisher must agree "to contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist") mean that very many fine books fall through the baggy Booker net. It is an oft-repeated figure that about 10,000 books are published in the UK each month. Many of those books are non-fiction and so immediately rule themselves out of consideration for the Booker, but very many are not. The prize, however, faced with this deluge of writing only considers a tiny handful of books. This year, just 120 were read by the judges.

As the Literary Saloon points out this ensures that even some very, very big hitters were left out of this year's longlist. No room was found for: Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee, Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje, My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru, The Song Before It Is Sung by Justin Cartwright, and The Rain Before it Falls by Jonathan Coe. And goodness knows how many gems by obscure writers have been missed. Disappointingly, the committee did find room to include journeyman dullard Ian McEwan with his mediocre and underwhelming On Chesil Beach. The scandalous omission of Rosalind Belben's wonderful Our Horses in Egypt damns this year's judges still further.

The Booker Prize is good fun. It gets books -- and often some very decent books -- onto the news and into the bookshops. And the longlist isn't a bad overview of some of the year's best books. But it is not a definitive filtering mechanism and, objectively, the prize often fails to fine the very best book of the year. It fails because, quite simply, it just doesn't look hard enough. Considering just 100-odd titles is something of a disgrace.

If you really want to know the best book of the year, ask the bloggers. They cast their net much wider and bring far more insight and passion to their reading than the Booker judges ever can.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
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