British Fiction Focus

To Booker or Not to Booker

In this special edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s blog about book news by way of the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry, we round up the reactions to last week’s announcement of a “contemporary” longlist of novels in contention for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

But first, let me take you back to the distant past. Back to a point almost certainly before the invention of the printing press, when dinosaurs likely travelled the land—lacking, alas, proper protection against the elements. Let me take you back further… further… still further. All the way to late May!

Well, maybe it wasn’t such a long time ago at all, but so much has happened since I asked if the genre wars were, in a word, won that it feels frighteningly like it.

This was on the back of an inspiring argument made by Robert Macfarlane, in which the chair of this year’s prize-giving committee asserted that the distinction between science fiction and fiction was in his eyes “a flimsy irrelevance.”

Another judge of the impending award, Stuart Kelly, picked up the thread in a subsequent article for The Guardian, stating that though he “won’t be holding [his] breath for Stephen King to get the call from Oslo,” he did not know of “a single serious critic nowadays who would dismiss genre writing solely on the basis that it is genre writing.”

“This, then, mightn’t mean a giant leap for the genre,” I concluded in my original report, “but it is unquestionably a small step in the right direction. The very thought that the third volume of a space opera series which comes complete with nanomachines and alien artefacts could be competing [with Colm Tóibín and his ilk] for this year’s Man Booker Prize is as sure a sign as any I’ve seen that the genre wars may indeed be ending. But as to whether they’re won and done? I wonder…”

Empty Space A Haunting

Still, the future of genre fiction in the mainstream looked mighty fine for a time. Now, however, the longlist is in, and one wonders: what gives?

Why no Empty Space, eh? If there was one genre novel that deserved a spot on the longlist, this is it. If there had been room for two, then I’d ask you: where’s The Adjacent? Or Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life? I’d have been as happy with that.

Before we did any deeper into this issue, have a look through the longlist, complete with links to individual blurbs and bios:

I’ve only read two of these books, which sounds vaguely shameful on the face of it—at least for someone who considers himself reasonably well read—but I don’t think that’s bad going, actually. After all, five of the longlisted novels haven’t even been published: a “fly in the ointment,” according to The Telegraph’s Sameer Rahim.

Madd Addam Margaret Atwood

Rahim also touched on the apparent snubbing of several previous winners, whose books are automatically considered by the committee:

Some will regret the absence of former winners such as Margaret Atwood (for MaddAdam) or JM Coetzee (The Childhood of Jesus); a couple, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and David Peace […] will likewise be missed by their advocates. But there are plenty of familiar names to discount accusations of felling tall poppies—and some less well-known ones worth picking up.

Justine Jordan made a similar case in an article for The Guardian, calling the longlist “daring and experimental”:

“There was no policy of giant killing or sacred cow slaughter,” promised the chair of judges, Robert Macfarlane. As he pointed out, it’s a year in which “unusually few” of the big names—previous Booker winners and shortlistees—have new books out. Their loss has been our gain as the longlist casts a wide net in terms of both geography and tone, ranging from the slimmest of novels—Colm Tóibín’s stark, surprising The Testament of Mary conjures the gospel according to Jesus’s mother in a mere 100-odd pages—to vast doorstops, playful with genre and form.

“Playful with genre and form” certainly describes the two longlisted novels I’ve personally read. Neither Harvest by Jim Crace—which looks like it’ll be the author’s swan song—nor A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki are of the genre, exactly, but I’d describe both as being of tangential speculative interest. There’s witchcraft on the fringes of the first, whilst its setting is so isolated and atmospheric that it reminded me of any number of failing fantasy landscapes, especially the post-apocalyptic America of The Pesthouse.

A Tale for the Time Being Ruth Ozeki

Ultimately, it’s the inclusion of A Tale for the Time Being that has mostly mollified my mixed feelings about the lack of literal genre fiction on the longlist. It’s a tough one to talk about without spoiling, so suffice it to say that Ozeki’s metatextual new novel makes magnificent use of quantum physics and philosophy. It’s almost, but not quite science fiction—and I guess that’s enough to tide me over till next time. Your mileage may however vary.

For anyone still feeling left out of the actual Man Booker Prize, let’s conclude on a nugget of good news: the Not the Booker is back, and despite the deeply dubious circumstances surrounding last year’s winner of—wait for it—one mug, I’m very pleased indeed to see it still exists.

Nominations have already been made for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The Humans by Matt Haig, The Machine by James Smythe, The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce, The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, plus the 23rd volume of the ongoing Horus Heresy saga. And that’s just the first of four pages (and counting) of submissions-cum-comments.

Why don’t you stop by and put your two cents in too?

And while you’re at it, I wonder: what genre fiction would you have liked to see on this year’s Booker longlist proper? Are you disappointed that the literature we love wasn’t better represented, buoyed up by the overall unpredictability of the nominated novels, or drifting somewhere between these extremes, with me?

British Genre Fiction Focus will be back tomorrow, but for the time being: toodles!

Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.


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