How to look past the buzz culture around the Booker shortlist (now with added Americans)

Which of these will stand the test of time? magdav, CC BY-SA

The books we’ll be buying for Christmas are making themselves known, their places in the various longlists and shortlists fiercely discussed in the papers. Every named writer wins a sticker on their book jacket and in an ever-decreasing number of bookshops; the reader is bombarded with rosettes. The Samuel Johnson Prize, the Orwell Prize, the Desmond Eliot Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Bailey’s Prize which was once the Women’s Prize, which was once the Orange Prize – all with eminent judges and various rules.

But the shortlist is the thing. And the shortlist of what is still considered (at least among readers) the thing of things is the Man Booker, just announced. So Christmas stockings this year will be full of novels by three British authors – Howard Jacobson’s J, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Ali Smith’s How to be Both. Two Americans also gain places for the first time – Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. And Richard Flanagan (Australian) rounds off the list with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Buzz culture around the prize now includes a “getting to know you” of the authors, their books and even the judges, so we can decide if we trust the deciders and their process of selection. We’re assured that every book is read, some up to five times, and the list argued over at meetings – there will often be some tidbit dropped about whether the judges got on. Literary culture loves nothing more than the rumour of a high-profile disagreement, quickly quashed in the announcement speech.

The lists themselves now include a certain amount of careful geographic, thematic and gender variation; one could call it a natural diversity, or one could call it politics. A debut or two, a small publisher breaking in, an “India” book, a woman, some big names and some less well-known ones. The 2014 Booker shortlist perfectly fits this bill. Like the Cannes Palme D’Or selection, some auteurs are almost guaranteed a place and when denied, that too makes news.

The integrity of the judges is assured by them writing columns about the selection process and themselves, being listed as “journalist and author”, “musician and broadcaster”, even, in the case of Peter Florence (on the panel for the Dylan Thomas), “festival supremo”.

A books that lasts

Judging confers on judges and judged alike a certain in-crowd caché. How are they, then, to choose and be chosen? The phrase “a book that lasts” comes to mind. Picking a winner must surely come down to this – sense that somehow the book has invaded our psyche and yet evaded capture long after its covers are closed. Books that ask more of their readers than simply to be read, then – books that are at once immersive and antagonistic to a reader’s sense of certainty or comfort.

JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (Booker winner, 1999) for example, is a book that stands up no matter how many years pass by. It’s a fierce and uncompromising vision of the world; an unsparing and rarely offered view inside a certain kind of (male) mind. It also offers a vision of a possible future that provokes long after the book is back on the shelf. The feminist Natasha Walter was on the judging panel the year it won – I once heard she was a champion of the book and can only thank her for it.

So now how do those jettisoned longlistees feel? The brutal process of selection includes an assumed ethical imperative – books that “should” be shortlisted, that “should” win, that “should” be read. With personal taste as regulator, it’s impossible to guess which books, in any given year and among any given group of judges, make the cut. Authors can console themselves with that, even those never-listed can consider themselves, perhaps, wait-listed instead; and take heart in the rejections-to-garlands story that precedes Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Not Booker material, apparently, although selected on many other lists and winner of many prizes – surely in its style and story a book “that will last”.

What to prize

To understand the shortlist and the winner, though, we have to go back to the small print. There is a good piece on the entry rules to the Booker that is as close as you’ll get to being a fly on the wall in those judges’ meetings. The rules seem more complex than getting tickets to Wimbledon: shortlisting, it seems, rewards publishers most of all. Those with recent listers get to enter more books than their rivals; those that get selected get the sales boost; it’s for them, perhaps, not us readers that the prize wheels seem to churn.

Yet there is, of course, something deeply thrilling about being on a list, about winning – a poignant and hilarious piece by double Booker winner Hilary Mantel called Eyes on the Prize is the best I’ve read on the subject. Each savvy reader has a favourite to win, one they think probably should win, and one they thing will win – because the writer is young or has been denied before or is a “name”.

This year’s judges are heavy on the academic credentials. The Chair is AC Grayling who is master of the New College of the Humanities, where 2014 shortlisted author and previous winner of the Booker, Howard Jacobson, teaches. The judges might take a warning from another shortlistee, Karen Joy Fowler, who writes, with some truth:

Most people liked Dracula, though some didn’t, but nobody liked professors who thought they could tell you what to read.

So perhaps we should treat our reading adventures like freshers at university treat their music: proud to know the bands that no one else has heard of. Instead of viewing these lists as gospel, we “should” read all the way to the back of the bookshop, and embrace the challenge of discovering, for ourselves, our own “books that will last”.