ManBooker Behaving Badly

After this year's longlist for the ManBooker prize was announced, Robbie Millen, literary editor of The Times complained about the lack of famous names like Julian Barnes put forward, arguing that there just weren't enough to attract sufficient numbers of book-buyers to make the prize relevant (J M Coetzee, A L Kennedy, Elizabeth Strout, Deborah Levy aren't famous enough, it seems). He pointed to a 'party of literary insiders' merely talking to itself at the expense of the book-reading, and book-buying, public at large.

This weekend, Andrew Holgate, literary editor of the Sunday Times, complained that there were too many US authors on the list, and that this had been the damaging factor. Not enough British and Commonwealth writers, too many Americans. And believed, like Millen, that there wasn't enough appeal to a wide audience:

'There is...a feeling that the prize is talking to a smaller and smaller potential readership interested in more and more marginal notions of what a satisfying literary novel is. The reading public are being bored out of love with the Booker,' he said, giving as an example the omission of Francis Spufford's Golden Hill (Faber) from this year's longlist.

Let me first declare a personal interest. One of the longlistees, Graeme Macrae Burnet, whose historical novel, His Bloody Project, is a friend of mine. His book is published by Contraband, which is an imprint of Saraband, the publisher of my historical novel from 2013, Unfashioned Creatures. I have tweeted already that I've never before felt such a personal investment in the outcome of the Booker!

However, I hope I'm not blinded to the concerns of Millen and Holgate. Let's just examine them for a moment, shall we? First of all the issue of fame. The ManBooker is meant to reward literary merit. Its tagline is 'fiction at its finest'. It's not meant to reward famous writers, but the 'finest'. And even the most famous writers can produce a dud. They can't expect an automatic award nomination just because their name's on the cover.

But what of Millen's point that not enough of the book-buying public will be attracted to this list of unknowns? Well, already Burnet's novel is a 'bestseller' on Amazon and Nicholas Royle of Salt, the publisher of another longlistee, Wyl Menmuir's The Many, has reported a similar hike in sales for their title.


It seems that the book-buying public hasn't been put off quite that much after all. Millen cited the lower sales of the last three years for ManBooker winners Marlon James (2015), Richard Flanagan (2014) and Eleanor Catton than previous years. But his assessment didn't take account of the change in book-buying practices - you could argue that the year before Catton's win saw the height of Amazon's low pricing strategy which elbowed all other contenders out of the picture. Why buy a £25 hardback when there are 1p books available on Kindle? He also didn't consider that all three titles are particularly challenging ones in different ways. Should we exclude writing that is challenging because fewer people will be attracted to it? I can't think of anything more ridiculous.

Andrew Holgate's attack on the Americans is interesting because he was initially enthusiastic about the opening up the ManBooker prize to American writers when it was first announced. Small publishers complained because the rules changed too - if you'd had a book nominated in the past, you could nominate more this time round. Inevitably, small publishers had fewer Booker nominations so would have less of a chance than the majors, which seemed unfair.

And yet, small publishers have consistently defied those expectations, fielding nominees every year. The Americans haven't squeezed them out after all. And I'm not sure about Holgate's argument which seems rather contradictory - not so many Commonwealth writers, whose absence he laments, are also the household names he agrees with Millen should be on the ManBooker list.

So what does he want more of, exactly?

His final point seems to answer that question: what a satisfying literary novel is. He just wants 'satisfying literary novels'. I'm surprised to learn that this year's judges seem to have been hell-bent on picking unsatisfying literary novels, but perhaps Holgate could read those on the longlist before he judges? He might find Burnet's novel very satisfying indeed. I can't know, of course, that he hasn't read His Bloody Project. But I know he hasn't reviewed it. Like pretty much every other London literary editor, he missed it.

Another personal intervention: I tried harder with this book than any other title to get it reviewed. I suggested it to my literary editor at the then Independent on Sunday, asking if I could review it myself. Understandably, I think, she felt that my being published by the same small publisher should exempt me from doing so and she was probably right there. I asked her to send it out to other paperback round-up reviewers and she said she would. Alas, some mis-packaging meant that she included it in the selection of paperbacks she sent to me for review. I pointed out the mistake and posted it back to her, asking again for it to be reviewed by someone else. But it never was.

Small publishers outside London especially have an enormous struggle to get their books reviewed by London newspapers (the Guardian's report on Burnet's longlisting even got the title wrong, calling it His Bloody Scotland). I do understand the problem for London literary editors - often less space for reviewing, increasing numbers of books being sent their way, what do they do?

What they do is make a judgement call - that's what they're being paid to do. Make a judgement call on books that should be noticed. Sure, they might not get that call right every time, they're only human. But like I say, that's what they're being paid for - their judgement.

And this year, that judgement's been found wanting, when so many titles have taken these literary editors by surprise. A few noses are clearly out of joint, it seems by the articles cited above. And so to pile on the harm they do small publishers by ignoring them in the first place, they're now blaming the biggest literary prize for doing what they failed to do: noticing and appreciating their titles. So I say to Millen and Holgate, don't go in the huff because you missed the best ones. Resolve to try and not miss them again!


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