British Fiction Focus

The Booker Rules

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s regular roundup of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

We begin this week with the reactions to the Man Booker Prize shortlist, announced mere moments after I posted the last edition of the Focus. It’s a distinctive shortlist of six that brought a tear to one book editor’s eye.

Others, however, got a touch hung up on its Unbritishness. Though the annual award does not purport to reward only British books, American novels have never before been in the committee’s remit, but in light of the latest shortlist, speculation is rife that that’s about to change.

Last but not least in this special, Man Booker-focussed Focus, Adam Robots—I mean Roberts—argues that the prestigious prize’s apparent disdain of YA makes it essentially irrelevant in the modern day.


Back to the Booker

In the British Genre Fiction Focus some months ago, on the back of Robert Macfarlane’s description of the distinction between fiction and science fiction as “a flimsy irrelevance”—not to mention Stuart Kelly’s extension of Macfarlane’s marvellous argument—I dared to dream that this year’s Man Booker Prize might see fit to feature a novel incontrovertibly of the genre, and in so doing demonstrate that this war of words was, if not won and done, then closer to concluding than ever before.

When the longlist was announced a little later, I confess to feeling somewhat saddened in my heart of hearts, but the presence of two texts among the many lifted my spirits a little: namely Harvest by Jim Crace, which had witchcraft on its fringes, and “a setting is so isolated and atmospheric that it reminded me of any number of failing fantasy landscapes,” and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, a “metatextual new novel,” as I said then, which “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.”

Now the shortlist proper is upon us, and I’m pleased as punch to report that both of these books have made it through. They’re accompanied by the following four finalists:

So what do we have here? Well, excepting the Crace and Ozeki’s latest, I fear I’ve read none of these novels; going forward, we’ll have to rely on the reactions of others.

Refreshingly, the response to the shortlist has been positive for the larger part. Jonathan Ruppin wrote that “there is something in this shortlist for everybody,” whilst a Waterstones spokesperson delighted in “a multicultural shortlist dominated by women” before championing A Tale for the Time Being:

This is an impossibly tough year to call, but I will be placing a small bet on Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being: I think it shares some of the spirit of Life of Pi that was such a memorable winner in 2002, and I think it might be time for another surprise.

In addition to this, The Bookseller named A Tale for the Time Being’s Nao as the year’s “most compelling character.” Such support!

Alas, the odds aren’t exactly in favour of Ruth Ozeki, and given that it’s the business of bookies to place their bets sensibly, I’m inclined to agree that Jim Crace is much more likely to take home the £50,000 prize. To be sure, it’s long overdue, and if Harvest is indeed his swansong—he says he’s retiring to avoid the “inevitable bitterness”—then it’d be nice to send the estimable author off with one last feather in his cap.

Of course Colm Tóibín is a real contender as well. The Testament of Mary marks his third time on the shortlist, and perhaps the luck of the Irish will be with him on this occasion. That said, the inclusion of what is essentially a novella has ruffled some feathers: The Testament of Mary, which tells the tale of Jesus’s mother mourning her son’s sacrifice, clocks in at only 101 pages in paperback.

By way of explanation, a few words from Robert Macfarlane, the aforementioned chair of this year’s prize committee: “We looked for books that sought to extend the power and possibility of the form. This is in keeping with the history of the novel. We wanted novel novels.”

And novel novels was what we got. All in all, I like the look of this shortlist an awful lot.

Some commentators, of course, reacted rather differently, appearing put out by what we might describe as a lack of bona fide British fiction on the shortlist.

Which brings me to topic number two for today…


Rewriting the Rules

Gaby Wood, boss of all things bookish at The Telegraph, and a former judge of the Man Booker Prize, in fact, concedes that she was moved to tears upon the announcement of this year’s shortlist. But there’s a but. Per The Bookseller:

“I sent out a tweet: ’Best Booker shortlist in living memory: NoViolet Bulawayo, Jim Crace, Eleanor Catton, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Ozeki, Colm Toibin’. There was one almost instant reply: ’Really? What about 2004: The Line of Beauty, Cloud Atlas, The Master?’ Well, maybe my memory’s not what it might be, or my idea of living debatable, but I take none of it back. This is, to my mind and my memory, a truly great shortlist.”

However, she added that she was struck by the fact that only one novelist on the list lives in the UK, and said: “It occurred to me that we could ask ourselves whether Britain is particularly congenial to writers.”

The Daily Mail led with the same issue, headlining its coverage with: “Only one British author on Booker shortlist”.

This is hardly a surprise given the Daily Mail’s typical tack, but unlikely as it is, they look to have stumbled upon an issue of legitimate interest. Here’s an excerpt from the actual article:

Two of the nominees raised eyebrows as they have American backgrounds – the contest, founded in 1969, is open only to writers from the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe.

But the judges brushed off speculation they would open up the competition to the US in the future.

One of the American authors is Ruth Ozeki, 57, a Buddhist priest with a Canadian passport. She was born in New Haven, Connecticut in the United States.

The other is Jhumpa Lahiri, 46, shortlisted for her novel The Lowland. […] Born in London and of Indian origin, she was raised in Rhode Island and now lives in New York.

Let me be completely clear here: in both cases, there’s a perfectly good reason that these authors are on the shortlist. Lahiri was born in Britain, and Ozeki can lay claim to a Canadian passport; Canada is a Commonwealth country. But it’s fair to say, if I may, that the lines are becoming a bit blurry.

Said speculation was recently reinforced by a report in the Sunday Times that “Britain’s most prestigious literary prize is to allow American writers to compete for the first time from next year.” Why? Because “the organisers increasingly believe that excluding writers from America is anachronistic. The Booker committee believes US writers must be allowed to compete to ensure the award’s global reputation.”

I’m wary of treating this news as absolute fact ahead of the press conference the committee intend to hold today, not least because a representative has since declared that the information currently in circulation is “incomplete,” but it does indeed appear that organisers have plans to react to the increasing pressure the Man Booker Prize has come under since the announcement of the competing Folio Prize for Fiction, “which is open to any work published in English in the UK.”

Assuming that the news is true, opinion on the shift seems mixed. The broadcaster Melvyn Bragg mooted that the Booker stands to “lose its distinctiveness [because of the decision]. It’s rather like a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate.“ Jim Crace’s agent David Godwin said to The Telegraph that “the Booker should stick to its guns,” noting that “it will be even harder now for British writers to get acknowledged.”

On the other side of the budding divide, The Bookseller suggested that “reaction among UK publishers and agents […] was more positive.”

While many did not want to be named ahead of clarification about the rule change, one publisher said the change could lead to ”more exciting shortlists” and could shine a light on underexposed authors, as well as increase sales internationally of the winning authors.

And that’s pretty much the story as it stands, so I’m going to open the floor to you folks. What do you think? Should the Booker stand fast? Or it is about damn time that the entry requirements change to reflect an ever-shifting industry?

There’s just time for one last note about the Man Booker Prize shortlist before I say good day…


Hey, Where’s the YA?

Over at Sibilant Fricative, the writer Adam Roberts raised an entirely different debate occasioned by the same shortlist we’ve been talking about today. I can hardly hope to condense his argument in the Focus, I’m afraid—Roberts is as involved a blogger as he is an author—but I wanted to draw your attention to it in any event.

It revolves, initially at least, around a debate he had with Robert Eaglestone on Twitter. Whereas Roberts deemed the shortlist “insular” and “backward looking,” stressing that “YA and (to a lesser extent) SF and crime are where the novel is most exciting today,” Eaglestone was unconvinced.

In the resulting behemoth of a blog post, Roberts put forth his argument in full. Brace yourself for a big old quote!

The thing about YA is that there never has been and never will be a YA title shortlisted for the Booker. Even SF and Crime get occasional token nods (usually these are SF and Crime novels that play enough of the complexity, innovation, envelope pushing game). But YA never. Judges look down on it; which is to say, ‘we’ look down on it. And this is exactly the problem.

I think the Booker was ‘right’ about the direction fiction was shifting in the 80s—Rushdie et al, postcolonial and international literatures. But I think they’ve been ‘wrong’ for nearly two decades now.

What were the really big novels of the end-of-90s and the 00s? There have been a great many really good novels of course; and even some significant ones; but the ones that had the biggest social and cultural impact, that spoke to most people, that in a sense define the literary culture (in the way that Dickens and the Brontes, say, ‘define’ the 1840s) are surely: Rowling’s Harry Potter; Philip Pullman; Meyer’s Twilight books and maybe The Hunger Games trilogy. Of these I’d like to make the case for Pullman as the most significant, because he’s the best writer of the lot—but though I’d like to make the case, I can’t, really. Because Potter and Twilight were just orders of magnitude bigger. It’s not just that vast numbers of children read them. Vast numbers did; but so did vast numbers of adults. These books have had a much larger cultural impact than all the Man Booker shortlisted novels over the same period combined; and they have done so for reasons that speak to crucial concerns of the moment. They are more relevant than elegantly sophisticated novels by Deborah Levy or Jim Crace. They are, in their ways, more eloquent about what matters today.

A perfectly fair point, wouldn’t you say?

But be that as it may, I don’t know that acknowledging the most relevant novels of our era has ever been what the Man Booker is about. Methinks eloquent is more on the money, though the committee would probably deploy that descriptor in a different way as well.

This, in a nutshell, is my problem with the Booker prize. Imagine a music prize that has, through the 70s and 80s and up to the present, shortlisted only abstruse jazz, contemporary classical andGentle-Giant-style prog rock concept albums. I love my prog rock, and partly I do so because it ticks all those aesthetic boxes I mention above—it is complex and challenging and intricate music (and I am a preening middle-class pretentious twat). But I wouldn’t want to suggest that prog has had anything like the cultural impact or importance as pop, punk or rap. That would be silly. So how would you tell the judges picking those shortlists about the Ramones, the Pistols and the Clash? How would you persuade them that they’re missing out not just good music but actually the music that really matters?

Well? How would you?

Much as I’d like to take this further, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today, but do pop on over to Sibilant Fricative to read Roberts’ entire elaborate argument.

Whatever happens at the press conference today—though I sincerely doubt they’ll have a word to say about YA—the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 15th. I for one am rooting for Ruth Ozeki, but the bookies are probably right to favour Jim Crace.

In the immortal words of the horse racing game I used to play in amusement arcades across the country as a kid: place your bets now please.


That’s it for the British Genre Fiction Focus this week. As ever, I’ll be back next Wednesday with another regular round-up of book industry-related news from the UK. See you again then!

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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