By Jean Baird | May 8, 2013

I am not alone. There are others out there researching prizes from various viewpoints and agendas. I am told there are several Ph.D. candidates at UBC working on the Bookers. Owen Percy recently completed graduate work on the GGs. There are a seemingly endless number of columns in newspapers and magazines about prizes. The 2012 non-fiction Canada Reads set the blogs going from coast to coast. Part of the discussion often includes an examination of what the novel is and should be doing. Here is Robert McCrum from The Guardian, 2002, during that year’s scandal about the quality of the books on the short list:

[There] is an ongoing debate within the literary community about the purposes of the novel today. Should it elevate or entertain? As Jonathan Franzen pointed out in the New Yorker, there are ‘two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience’. In what he calls the ‘status’ novel, the author (following Flaubert) places himself above the herd, declares his writing a work of art and disdains the appreciation of his readers. Or there is the ‘contract’ novel, that makes a compact between writer and reader, in which the novelist’s responsibility is ‘to create a pleasurable experience’, i.e. to entertain…

Within the industry, ‘literary fiction’ has become identified as another label for second-rate novels that don’t sell. The publishers, who for so long paid lip-service to ‘literary fiction’, have also played their part in the drive towards narrative. The twenty-first-century publisher, motivated by the corporate machine, has to find books that sell. Armed with computerised sales tracking, which exposes writers whose work finds no audience, the ‘new era’ publisher cannot afford to nurture a writer of ‘difficult’ or ‘experimental’ fiction to the point where they might break even.

The full article can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/sep/29/ bookerprize2002.thebookerprize

One UK study, “An investigation into the attitudes of public librarians towards the Man Booker Prize for Fiction” conducted by Karl Hemsley at the University of Sheffield to fulfill course work for graduate librarian degree, shows that UK librarians also fall into two categories: camp one believes that the job of public libraries is to be patronizing, to give the public what it wants (entertain); camp two believes that in part public libraries need to be elitist—if books aren’t available they won’t be read (educate). UK libraries are tasked with reader development. Camp one believes that happens by supplying the book users demand. Camp two believes you need to encourage users to widen their reading habits.

The librarians interviewed by Hemsley express the usual assumptions and accusations about prizes. Many point to the enormous control and vested interest that publishers have on the Booker. Some even said publishers decide the Bookers because publishers are the ones who decide what books will be put forward. So despite the intentions of the Booker administration, these librarians argue the agenda of the prize is actually set by publishers.

Many of the librarians argued that “literary fiction” is elitist which they defined as pretentious and unreadable. One stated that literary fiction means “a novel that places style before content, puts prose before plot and subordinates character and narrative to nebulous aesthetic concerns.”

These librarians were very articulate about the challenges of the juror process—the Booker demands that each juror must read all submitted novels. When you are faced with 120+ novels in a matter of months you must be speed-reading. The librarians know that prize jurying does not allow for careful reading. The librarians also pointed out that Booker jurors are “like-minded high-brow people.” Librarians know that the biggest factor in winning prizes is luck.

The Hemsley research did unearth one very interesting fact. Some UK writers have it stipulated in their publishing contracts that their novels will be submitted to the Booker. Since a publisher only has 2 slots for the prize that contract clause is very powerful. And telling, don’t you think?


Jury: Chris Smith was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 1997 to 2001, and is now Director of the Clore Programme for Cultural Leadership. He was first elected as Member of Parliament for Islington South & Finsbury in 1983, and has held this position ever since. Tibor Fischer has worked as a journalist and was selected as one of the ‘20 Best of Young British Novelists’ by Granta in 1993. His first novel Under the Frog won the Betty Trask Award in 1992, and was the first debut novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993. Robert Macfarlane, writer, critic and academic (28 at the time he was a juror). Rowan Pelling founder and editor of The Erotic Review, and journalist. Fiammetta Rocco journalist and novelist.

Gerard Woodward—I’ll go to Bed at Noon VPL

The story of the Jones family. Father Aldous and mother Colette and their four children, Janus, James, Juliette and Julian. These are not the Joneses you want to keep up with. This novel is the second Woodward has written about this family. In the first, Colette was sniffing glue. In this novel her preferred substance is barley wine. Colette’s brother, Janus Brian drinks himself to death after the death of his wife. Colette’s other siblings drink. Her son Janus is a reckless, destructive drunk. Category: dysfunctional families.

There is a bit of chat about the impending election, and the reader knows it is Margaret Thatcher who will win and that Britain is in for a thrashing. But otherwise the novel is about the Joneses, bouts of drinking, the small changes in the pattern of life as the children age, move away, marry, move back, travel, etc. They stagger on. Some die. Some survive.

I wasn’t totally persuaded. An alcoholic doesn’t throw up after three beers, as Janus does at one point. But the relationship between Colette and Janus does portray the codependency of addiction, and without judgment.

The novel, Woodward’s second, is highly readable but I had to wonder if it was submitted by the publisher because Woodward’s first novel was short-listed for the Whitbread prize.

Colm Toibin—The Master VPL

The novel is about Henry James from January 1895 to October 1899, with lots of stories of earlier times in the life of the novelist. The first section marks the disastrous reception of a play written by James at the same time that Oscar Wilde’s plays were meeting with huge success. James is crushed, and retreats to Ireland. Much of the novel explores the lifetime habit of James to be withdrawn and his failure to make connections with people. Toibin doesn’t make conclusions—this event explains that behavior of James—but he does present lots of supposedly actual events that might have influenced the personality development of the Master writer, including his suppressed sexuality. In this regard the novel pulls the reader in and draws a compelling portrait of James. And like James, Toibin has an eye for detail:

Sometimes when they spoke he heard Minny Temple’s voice. He envied them their lack of self-consciousness, their unawareness that their American voices, so filled with enthusiasm, were not as original as they imagined, nor as uncomplicated by history as they supposed…He deplored the girls’ accents and corrected them regularly as they moved from one museum to another. When Rosina, for example, admired the jewels in a Parisian shop window, Henry immediately corrected her.

Jew—el, not jool.”

But when Toibin turns to explaining how James mostly used events from his life and life of acquaintances to build literature, the writing becomes stilted. Many times during these sections I thought of abandoning the novel. But I’m glad I persevered because the section about the relationship between James and Constance Fenimore Woolson is a wonderful combination of tenderness and pity, that two such talented writers would be so inept in their own personal lives.

While not mimicking the style used by Henry James, in part the novel is homage. Well-written but it isn’t the startling and often brilliant prose of Henry James. This is Toibin’s fifth novel, and his previous appearance on the short list for the Booker helped to establish his stardom.

Sarah Hall—The Electric Michelangelo VPL

From the book jacket: In the uniquely sensuous and lyrical prose that has already become her trademark, Sarah Hall’s remarkable new novel tells the story of Cy Parks, from his childhood years spent in a seaside guest house for consumptives with his mother, Reeda, to his apprenticeship as a tattoo-artist with Eliot Riley—a scrapper with a reputation as a Bolshevik and a drinker to boot.

His skills acquired and a thirst for experience burning within him, Cy departs for America and the riotous world of the Coney Island boardwalk, where he sets up his own business as ‘The Electric Michelangelo’. In this carnival environment of roller-coasters and freak-shows, while the crest of the Edwardian amusement industry wave is breaking, Cy becomes enamoured with Grace, a mysterious East European immigrant and circus performer who commissions him to cover her body entirely with tattooed eyes.

Hugely atmospheric, exotic, and familiar, The Electric Michelangelo is a love story and an exquisitely rendered portrait of seaside resorts on opposite sides of the Atlantic by one of the most uniquely talented novelists of her generation.

This blurb suggests to me that the novel was quickly and indulgently edited. Sarah Hall won the Commonwealth Writers Best First Novel Award. This novel is her second, appearing a brief two years after the first; extremely quick given the slow pace of big publishers (Faber and Faber).

The book jacket blurb covers the plotline. The rest of the novel is very much about atmosphere, of both seaside and carnival-like communities. The writing is flowery and in a strange way keeps the characters at a distance. It’s a motley group of people but not one of them ever seems more than a caricature. This dullness might in part have to do with the minimal amount of dialogue. Yes, the novel is about physical and emotional pain, both personal and societal, but those things are mused on over and over and over, and too often with some mythical overtones that are just outright sentimental and laughable. I was never once convinced that I was anywhere other than the early C21st looking back to the beginning of the C20th. I thought to get a friend with significant tattooing to read it and write a report, but I like her too much for that.

David Mitchell—Cloud Atlas VPL

Reading this novel right after the one by Hall further emphasized the skill of the Mitchell and the indulgence of the Hall. From the first page the reader is immersed in a different time but without all the atmospheric description and poppycock.

Mitchell strings together narratives and makes startling connections without stooping to cliché conclusions. He has borrowed and stolen widely from different written traditions, somehow making it all new. The narratives travel into a centre, then move from that centre back to the beginning. The ride out had some blips but the ride in was one of the best and exciting reads I’ve had in years. I insisted George Bowering read it. Here is his report:

Recently I saw a male American movie star talking with the comedic host of a midnight television show. The movie star reported that he had been in Germany, working in a movie titled Cloud Atlas. The host asked him what it was about. The movie star said that he did not know. Fair enough. The host asked him where the movie idea came from, and the movie star did not seem to know that either. They did not pursue the subject beyond that exchange. My guess is that for every person who reads David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas there are a million people who recognize the movie star.

The novel is constructed of six novella-length stories, each of which involves people who are desperately travelling, often being pursued by others who do not wish them well. A cloud atlas is a book of photographs depicting the various kinds of clouds; it is used by weather-watchers, especially those who are travelling by sea or air. The term “cloud atlas” shows up a couple of times in Mitchell’s book. In one case it is the title a musical composition written for six instruments. In the novella titled “Letters from Zedelgheim,” a young composer describes his “sextet for overlapping soloists.” “In the first set,” he writes, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.”

That is the structure of the novel, of course, and as each of the instruments has “its own language of key, scale, and colour,” so each novella is set in its own place and time—and genre. We see a nineteenth century sea story, an epistolary fiction, a satirical British comedy, a post-apocalypse dystopia, and so on. In each novella a character is allowed to read something from the previous narration. And each of these characters bears a peculiar birthmark in the shape of a comet. So it goes: abcdeffedcba.

At first one is put in mind of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and one is inclined to congratulate Mitchell for stepping out of the general everyday meadow or backstreet of standard British fiction. Then one is delighted to catch quick glimpses of other writers, great or domestic. One is encouraged to recall the entire structure and history of literary architecture. And here is the accomplishment I admire most: while David Mitchell took the time to invent a tricky, puzzling, intricate and lengthy machine of experimental writing, he also provided some admirable chase scenes that will have you reading well past your lights-out time. I am not the first reader to attest that I wished for, say, another three novellas in the composition.

Jean forced me to read this book, and I want to thank her for that. It is better than any of the nine other Booker finalists I have had to read for the book club that she supervises.

Achmat Dangor—Bitter Fruit VPL

It’s late in the 20th century, Nelson Mandela is the President of South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is preparing its final report. This novel is one of the few Bookers that is about the modern world. Characters use cell phones and surf the Internet. But that modernity is betrayed by the aftermath of apartheid.

I struggled with this novel. Many times the writing is bothersome, as if an indulgent poet has taken over the text. As a reader, I thought the novel is an important document, but how well does it stand up to literary analysis? Dangor is a well-known activist; he has written a couple of collections of poetry and some other novels.

The following review hit on many of my concerns and grapples well with the challenge, if you forgive the academic jargon:



Alan Hollinghurst—The Line of Beauty VPL WINNER

Another novel about sex and power. And a lot of lust.

Nick Guest finishes university and ends up living with the family of his school friend, Toby. Toby’s father is an MP in the Thatcher government. Toby’s sister Catherine is a troubled teen, with self-destructive tendencies and an acerbic wit. Toby’s mother comes from a wealthy, established family. Well-written, the novel takes on the Thatcher era, and the Iron Lady herself, but in a new way.

In her fine essay “Let’s Dance,” Kim Duff writes that “Hollinghurst draws on the sociopolitical context of the 1980s, exploring how the politics of inclusion/exclusion affected Thatcherite ideas about consumption and wealth, and private and public space. In this sense, Hollinghurst’s text illustrates the way that the specter of Thatcher haunts 1980s British bourgeois society as she is coveted socially and politically, and how some 20 years later she continues to haunt British society through issues of deregulation, immigration, and gay rights.”

And this is very much a gay novel. We are with Nick on his very first sexual encounter, in the private garden behind Toby’s house, with Leo. The homosexual relationships, and the need for secrecy also inform the political world. Nick’s lover Wani, son of a rich immigrant businessman, is able to travel in the world of the British establishment in ways that Nick only yearns for because the wealth of Wani’s father lends him credibility. Nick and Wani, sniffing cocaine at every opportunity, squandering money in the search for aesthetic beauty and picking up as many threesomes as they can, blur the Line of Beauty—is it the aesthetic of the coke?

Something was bothering me about the novel, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. You may recall that Stan Perksy wrote a guest review for the previous short-listed Hollinghurst so I asked him about The Line of Beauty:

I continue to think that his best book is his first one, The Swimming Pool Library. All of the books (except The Spell, where he was befogged by Ecstasy — the drug, not the phenomenological experience) are “beautifully” (and beautifully, without the quote marks) written, but there’s always something wrong with them. (Daniel Mendelsohn in a recent New York Review essay reviewing H’s latest, The Stranger’s Child, gets as close as anyone I’ve read to explaining the hollowness that afflicts H’s elegant literary architecture.) So, H. writes exceptionally well, and he’s enormously smart. But there’s something repulsive about his protagonists, and Nick Guest is no exception. It’s hard to care what happens to him, or to the Arab prince snorting cocaine, or to Gerald the MP, or just about anyone. All of H’s novels are “recent historical” novels and have the curious limitation of historical realist fiction. I didn’t find any of the allusions to Henry James in Line of Beauty to make any sense. Mainly, I end up admiring how H. turns a sentence, renders a scene, structures a novel, etc., but it turns out I’m not particularly moved by whatever it is he’s trying to say. The appropriate comparisons for Hollinghurst are the other gay novelists of the period, Edmund White (A Boy’s Own Story, The Married Man) or Andrew Holleran (Dancer from the Dance).

That’s it. There is so much to admire, but there is also something hollow. Here is the NY Review to which Stan refers:


I would have given the win for 2004 to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Tibor Fischer From The Guardian

I’d heard the rumours. The hair-pulling, the eye-gouging, the shameful flouncing. I was, however, extremely impressed by the rigour of my fellow judges, who, unlike me, had proper jobs and families to distract them from the mound of books. What did I learn? Discussion is futile. No one changes their mind about a book. You might as well have a show of hands straight away. There aren’t many bad books (only one novel ended up in the bin after two pages), but there are a lot of so-so, nondescript novels that leave no trace. Publishers are idiots. I was very pleased Alan Hollinghurst won. But I wouldn’t say The Line of Beauty is a better novel than David Mitchell’s very different Cloud Atlas (which came in second) or Neil Cross’s Always the Sun (or others on the longlist).

There are good reasons why Midnight’s Children has been chosen as the Best of the Bookers (although every novelist I know rates Shame as Rushdie’s best book), but it would have been a more interesting exercise to have chosen the best of the shortlisted novels. It’s a pity that Beryl Bainbridge has always been pipped, and my favourite novel in the Booker annals (I’ve read it at least a dozen times) is Derek Robinson’s Goshawk Squadron



More from Jean Baird:

  • 2011

    Jean Baird reviews her favourite Booker novels and reports on the 2011 prize. Read more… 

  • 2010

    Jean Baird offers some advice about writing a prize-winning book and reports on the 2010 Booker Prize. Read more… 

  • 2008

    Jean Baird offers some advice to literary prize administrators and reports on the 2008 Booker Prize. Read more…