Talk Is Cheap: Leo Robson Says the Man Booker Prize Is a Mere Literary Toy
Robson, Leo, New Statesman (1996)
Every summer people are given the opportunity to talk nonsense about the Man Booker Prize; and every summer they take it. Last year, for instance, we heard about the triumph of "historical fiction", the reason being that most of the novels that were shortlisted--and the eventual winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall--were set in the past.
By this year's standards, that looks like literary criticism. When the longlist was announced in July, much fuss was made over Martin Amis's "exclusion"--an event that is hardly unprecedented. We were informed that Christos Tsiolkas's longlisted The Slap was misogynistic for, at any rate, that India Knight thought so). Perhaps silliest of all was the claim that this has been the "funny" year: Andrew Motion and his jury have decided on a shortlist that, as he weirdly putit, "might connect with other ways in which comedy has joined the mainstream (stand-up, 'youth culture' and so on)".
If we look a little closer, we discover that this characterisation derives largely from the presence on the shortlist of The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, though readers disappointed or even appalled by this book--we do exist--might argue that it is "comic" without being funny. In fact, 2010 might more accurately be described as the "non-funny" year, given the number of comedies--most of them historical!--that might have made the longlist but didn't: Andrew O'Hagan's The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, Roddy Doyle's The Dead Republic, Jonathan Coe's The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and Ned Beauman's Boxer, Beetle.
There is an understandable tendency to search for pattern or meaning in a process that stands only for itself. Five people read 140 novels by writers, discuss their virtues, and choose the ones they quite like, like a lot, and like the most. If their favour shines on "first-timers", say, or "satire", it is a coincidence: those books might have been published a month earlier or later, and a different jury may have overlooked them. Myths of the prize's spiritual unity, such as "the Booker novel", represent an attempt to ward off randomness.
Anyone can develop a Booker theory, with examples adduced from across the years. For instance, I find something suspicious about the tendency of juries chaired by MPs to commit baffling oversights. George Walden managed to preside over a shortlist in 1995 that didn't include Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, and Gerald Kaufman's jury (1999) overlooked Tim Parks's Destiny.
This is a coincidence, but the failure to recognise two such adventurous English novels nevertheless feels telling. Booker juries tend to favour the parochial in English fiction at the expense of the tempestuous and taxing. For in-stance, Howard Jacobson's exorbitant master-piece Kalooki Nights, longlisted in 2006, would have made one of the most deserving winners in the prize's history; The Finkler Question, by turns mean-spirited and sentimental, its prose a chaos of failed gags and irrational syntax, has none of that book's elegance, energy, or wit.
The Finkler Question is also a conventionally built novel published at a time when there has been much discussion about the novel's--especially the English novel's--formal and philosophical complacency. …