Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Booker Prize's "Henry Fonda" year

When I started the series on "bad Booker beats" (see here, here, and here) I thought it might shed some light on worthy (Man) Booker prize nominees that failed to capture the top prize. The idea was not to perpetuate the worst aspect of literary prizes--the competitive comparison of works of art--but to amplify one of their better features--the discussion of quality fiction that encourages more readers to read more quality books.

My most optimistic hopes for the series are fulfilled by this superb consideration of the issue by Perry Middlemiss:
Leaving aside minor judging glitches such as 1991, when Ben Okri's magic realism beat out the better "real realism" of Rohinton Mistry, the major Booker Prize gaffe occurred in 1986 when Kingsley Amis got the gong. I like to think of this as the Booker’s “Henry Fonda” year.

In 1981 Henry Fonda was the ageing doyen of a famous acting family and near the end of his career when he appeared in “On Golden Pond” with his daughter Jane and Katherine Hepburn. Fonda was nominated for a Best Actor Award in a relatively weak year (Dudley Moore?) which had one stand-out performance, that of Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City”. I don’t know what odds were given on Fonda going in to the ceremony but having seen both films that year I thought Lancaster was a shoe-in. And then sentiment over-ruled logic and Fonda was given the Oscar, for a performance which reeked of sentimentality and which was carried by Fonda's two female co-stars. Fonda died within a few months of the award ceremony.

In 1986 Kingsley Amis was on the Booker list for the third time and hardly likely to win for his novel The Old Devils. Beloved by the old school of British critics, Amis had produced little of worth since his debut, Lucky Jim, in 1954. He had never won anything and the prospects of him ever doing so looked decidedly thin. His time was past and he was falling out of favour as authors such as his son Martin, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan were in the ascendant.

I’ve only read four of the six novels included on the 1986 Booker shortlist and can safely say that, of the four, the Amis ranks a very distant fourth. Best of the lot was Paul Bailey’s Gabriel’s Lament, a semi-autobiographical novel depicting the damage that fathers can inflict on their sons. Somehow or other, the Booker judges in 1986 thought Amis’s novel the best of the year: better than the Bailey, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. And this leaves out novels by Robertson Davies and Timothy Mo which I haven't read. Both, I suspect, in a class above Amis’s phoned-in effort. It was a strong year, yet we are left with a novel about middle-class, middle-aged has-beens drinking themselves to death. A novel about Amis and his friends, presumably.

A major mistake.

Perry Middlemiss's websites are treasures for book lovers, particularly those readers interested in Australian and Commonwealth fiction. Click here for his pages on "everything pertaining to the Booker Prize."

Thanks to Perry for such a stimulating discussion.

I hope his argument will spur readers to consider Bailey’s Gabriel’s Lament, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World. And don't pity Amis--he won the prize, after all--but do him the honor of reading his Lucky Jim, perhaps the greatest comic campus novel.

--Marshal Zeringue