Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The greatest Booker Prize injustices

Q. If you could abolish one thing in the book world, what would it be?

A. Literary prizes — they wrongly encourage seeing literature as a contest or a news story. They’ve got to go.

--the novelist Jonathan Coe, with wonderful timing, in a TV interview aired just before his life of B.S. Johnson won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson prize.

So it may be crass to pay undue attention to literary prizes. Nevertheless, I'm usually curious how they turn out. (I watch the Oscars, too.)

And the award I watch the closest is The Man Booker Prize, open to any full-length novel written by a citizen of the (British) Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published in the award year. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published.

A complete list of winners and short-listed novels can be found here.

I've read fewer than half the novels short-listed for the Booker, and I've never read all the short-listed novels for any given year. The closest I've come is having read four of the six 2005 nominees and four of the six 1990 nominees.

Not having read all the nominees does not prevent me from sharing some thoughts on past contests, however.

2005. I liked the winner, The Sea by John Banville, and his 1997 The Untouchable is a favorite of mine. But I also enjoyed Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and, had I been a judge, I probably would have voted for Julian Barnes' Arthur & George.

2001. I didn't read the winner, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, though I do very much like and admire three of his earlier novels. Ian McEwan's Atonement, which may be the best novel written in the last 25 years that I've read, lost out. The petty side of me is outraged, but I guess the reasonable thing is to first read the Carey book before giving vent to my disappointment.

2000 and 1999. I read only the winners--Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000) and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999)--and thought they were excellent. Disgrace may be the bleakest, most soul-crushing great novel I've ever read.

1998. I read the winner, Ian McEwan's Amsterdam as well as two of the other nominated novels, and liked them all. I was glad to see Amsterdam win; the interesting angle for me in 1998 was that McEwan published another novel, Enduring Love, and I had a slight preference for it over Amsterdam.

Part 2 of this post is coming soon.

Meanwhile, do you have a bad Booker beat? Share your story/rage: email me.

--Marshal Zeringue