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2014 Booker Longlist: Padded with Americana?

Let’s just get the opinion thing out right away: personally – and I say this as an American reader, really – I think opening up the Booker Prize to American authors cheapens and diminishes the award significantly. But let me back up.

Until this current year, these were the requirements for eligibility for the Man Booker Prize, established in 1969:

Any full-length novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published in the United Kingdom for the first time in the year of the prize. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published.  

Then, just before the announcement of the 2013 Booker, they switched things up (this is from a press release from the Booker Foundation chair, Jonathan Taylor):

…the Man Booker Prize is to expand eligibility for future prizes to include novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author.

Okay, I can sort of see the value in this – they’re trying to globalize this award that seemingly no one pays attention to outside of the UK and this website that you are currently browsing. But the United States has the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for American authors – was it really necessary to water down the soup from which the Booker committee ladles their winner? I happen to believe that there are more than enough broad-reaching novels written by writers falling under the Commonwealth umbrella to still make the Booker a viable UK-only award. But for the sake of acquiescence, I suppose, let’s see what the first expanded longlist looks like – announced on July 23:

Joshua Ferris – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (American)
Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Australian)
Karen Joy Fowler – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (American)
Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World (American)
Howard Jacobson – J (British)
Paul Kingsnorth – The Wake (British)
David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks (British)
Neel Mukherjee – The Lives of Others (British)
David Nicholls – Us (British)
Joseph O’Neill – The Dog (Irish/American)
Richard Powers – Orfeo (American)
Ali Smith – How to be Both (British)
Niall Williams – History of the Rain (Irish)

Now… ahem… we all know who I’m rooting for – and let’s be honest, this really has got to be Mitchell’s year. Which is what worries me. Five of his six books have now been nominated to the Booker longlist – and Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas made it to the shortlist. And, as you all know, The Bone Clocks truly is a masterpiece and should win easily. Easily! Looking at the rest of this list, none of the American authors feel like they’ll make the cut to the short, so was the change really necessary? Joshua Ferris? Really? In all fairness, I haven’t read this new book, but I did read Then We Came to the End (which was a sort-of funny, unusually narrated debut) and only half of The Unnamed, a story about a guy who literally can’t stop walking that felt to be wandering completely aimlessly. (Neither of which I thought were worthy of award consideration, to be honest.) Karen Joy Fowler’s book definitely sounds interesting, but c’mon, she also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. Siri Hustvedt and Richard Powers seem like serious contenders, but I’m only basing that on assumptions. I’ve never read anything by Hustvedt, although I’ve often thought that a dinner party at her house with her husband, Paul Auster, would be the most terrifying, intimidating party possible. And I’ve been told to read Powers on many occasions (mainly by a friend who only reads novels with head injuries in them) but just haven’t managed it. But actually the biggest news for this longlist is actually an omission – and I’m not talking about the lack of Canadians: American Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, Catapult Notable novel, The Goldfinch is nowhere to be seen. Say what you want about Tartt’s work being less-than literary (see this Vanity Fair piece for a summary of the snooty bullshit) but all signs point to her inclusion on this first-ever “global” Booker Prize list. (Actually, if you are one of those obnoxious idiots claiming that Tartt is not literary, shut your stupid mouth – she should’ve been on this list.)

Honestly, the rest it is pretty solid, as far as I can tell. Flanagan, Jacobson, O’Neill, and Smith are all known as legit, literary writers with some backbone. Did the field need to be expanded to America? (I say “America” becuase that’s the only country represented outside the Commonwealth in this “global” list.) At first glance, definitely, absolutely not. 

But this is one of those snobby, pretentious things to debate when your life isn’t threatened by Russian missiles, Ebola, or dudes tunneling under your walls or shooting rockets into your living room. Yes, I am complaining – publicly – about the rules and regulations for an arbitrary award (worth over $80k, by the by) given to someone who has written a book. Please punch me in the face. 

That said…
The Booker shortlist will be announced on September 9 and the winner (aka: Mr. David Mitchell) on October 14. If you have any questions for a five-time Booker nominee, head on over to warwicks.com and get your ticket.


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4 comments on “2014 Booker Longlist: Padded with Americana?

  1. Biblibio
    August 14, 2014

    Um. I have a bit of an issue here. You're upset by literary elitism regarding a book you liked, but use it to dismiss a book you haven't read yet. Why does it matter what Karen Joy Fowler has written in the past? By all accounts, her book is brilliant (that “c'mon” is particularly rude) . I understand that this list is frustrating (personally I find the stunning lack of women more troubling, but it's also tied to the new Americans so I guess it's sort of the same complaint…), but I think it's unfair to be so dismissive of books you haven't actually read yet…

  2. heather
    August 28, 2014

    Hey Seth. Haven't read you in a while but as always I love your completely unpretentious and from the gut way of writing. Also you are no slouch when it comes to reading. So my reason for posting is more in response to the Karen Joy Fowler book which I did read. Her short stories are absolutely stellar, she is a brilliant in the short form, but this novel nominated for the booker, while having an interesting premise, read to me like young adult fiction. Anyway take care and I have just ordered Mitchell's book. What did you think of Kutakani's review? I must admit I love her.

  3. Seth Marko
    August 29, 2014

    I've given your comments a lot of thought, Biblibio, and I think what you've said is fair. I should not have dismissed Fowler based on my preconceived notions about her based on her previous book about a book club centered around Jane Austen – which I have not read. (Austen or Fowler, that is.) And I do think her new book sounds interesting. So, I shouldn't have blown it off so obnoxiously.

    BUT… 🙂 I still don't think that The Goldfinch, the reigning Pulitzer winner, should have been left off this longlist. It's easy for me to say – as a jerk with a blog – that it should be there in place of the Fowler, but like you said, I haven't read that one, so what do I know? Hell, I was WAY harder on Josh Ferris and I haven't read that one either. Where are the Ferris defenders, I ask?

    Also, while this longlist is particularly light on women authors, as you say, 3 of the last 5 winners have been women and it's 50/50 over the last decade. Not too shabby.

  4. Seth Marko
    August 29, 2014

    Thanks, Heather. Now that I think of it, I never thought to ask Biblibio if they have read the Fowler – and if so, what did they think of it? Sounds not so fresh to me.

    I thought Kakutani's review of the Mitchell was obnoxious – and I of course disagree with her. Her call for the book needing an editor? C'mon. The section she complains about was my personal favorite – so I don't think it needed any trimming at all. 🙂 I find her pretentiousness to be mean-spirited most of the time, but I think it's hugely important to have such divisive critics out there. Even if they bash my favorite author.

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