The art of authorship isn’t simply about posting faded telegrams from middle England’s smug bourgeoisie, and the Man Booker Prize has always campaigned to flag this up – highlighting works that showcase the diversity of the form, novels that splinter from the habitual tract and those which experiment and fear compromise.
Last year, an equivocal judging panel may have swerved a little too haphazardly towards the populist masses with a list projected towards “readability” and with a desperation not to alienate the unfamiliar reader. Its winner, Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, although a deftly crafted treatise upon memory distortion and denial, smacked a little of a Reputation Prize, whereas zip-along entries such the cloying Pigeon English suggested a judging agenda more akin to the Costa, that of accessibility and novelty. It was an approach that led to Andrew Kidd of Picador to retaliate with the launch of the Literature Prize, aiming to emulate the values of scholarly innovation Booker established in 1969, when P H Newby won with Something to Answer For – a title bizarrely prescient to 2012, where we see the collected literati grumbling over their pince-nez, demanding answers and screaming for a shift.
So how to sate those sceptics this year? How to return to the ideals that it formatively aspired to and how to drag it away from the Sainsburys pleasing, doe-eyed unit-shifting exercise it is in danger of becoming? To begin, perhaps counter-intuitively, we should look at the omissions.
Let us deal firstly with the underclass aping – toothy über-brat Martin Amis. However incendiary his recent turn, it would be impossible to get a room of three, let alone five judges, to harmonise upon the merits of his grandiloquent output, so that counts out this year's Lionel Asbo. He has never won and possibly, because of his recent transatlantic defection, never will. But perhaps more tellingly, is the omission of the old guard, with John Banville, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and most remarkably Zadie Smith – whose NW was many a bookseller's tip for this year's winner – all falling short with their attempts.
In their place are four titles from début authors – Rachel Joyce for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, Sam Thompson’s Communion Town and Alison Moore with The Lighthouse. Rarely though, is top slot presented to a début writer. So could this be read as a mission statement from the new array of judges, a conscious effort to counter the populist errors of last year’s gaggle? Perhaps and perhaps not. The consensus is that with this being such a golden year for fiction, these exclusions were truly justified, and with the inclusion of Hillary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, surely the biggest blockbuster of the lot, the idea of reputation-as-detriment is negated.
Whatever the criteria, what we have here is a pleasing return to form, a re-emphasis upon language and style, sadly impoverished in 2011, and a panel of judges, led by the erudite Sir Peter Stothard that we can trust. As an interesting aside, in 2008, the rare year in which a début did win, Oxbridge head-goon, Michael Portillo described Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, as “knocking his socks off”, as he remarked he hadn’t encountered anything of its like before. Not as a slight upon the book itself, but more so upon the judge – the reason he may have been so astounded with its form was because he hadn’t read a range of books required to avoid being fooled by this kind of stylistic folly.
The pedigree of this year’s panel is decorous and as the list displays, they are not ones to be seduced by crude novelty. It’s a convergence of worthy minds that is prepared to read read and read. Furthermore, in past years the list has been marketed as the blackboard-scraping “Booker’s Dozen”, with 13 finalists on the list. This year it is a simple 12. No gimmicks, no pandering to unfamiliar readers, just a refreshing assemblage of new ideas, confidently executed. The Man Booker returning to its origin. Here are our choicest picks: The Yips by Nicola Barker (4th Estate) Nominated in 2007 for the deranged Darkmans, the author proceeds here with her usual thematic concerns, those of small town satire, an abhorrent cast of miscreants and fools, wild metaphor, and a sinister approach to love. And it's about a golf player from Luton.
Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre) The follow up to the brilliant yet over-zealous Boxer Beetle finds the author fully in his stride, with an epoch spanning story, utilising a teleportation mishap as a metaphor for perpetual social change. Dark, lascivious humour once more prevails, Philida by André Brink (Harvill Secker) Finally stepping out from under the weighty shadow of JM Coetzee, Brink was originally nominated for the Booker as far back as 1975 and 1977 and as such, this is a long awaited return to prominence. A poignant tale of a slave woman's quest for liberation set in 19th century Cape Town, this, from an author which cuts such a highly controversial figure in his own country, would be a politically loaded winner. Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel (4th Estate) It’s impossible to ignore the latest in the author’s exquisitely studied Thomas Cromwell saga (Wolf Hall, the first instalment won in 2009), this time peering at the downfall of Anne Boleyn through the great Puritan’s eyes. This may be the most mainstream title on the list but despite its dense historical emphasis and at times problematic narration, it could indeed be a candidate for a rare double win. Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury) This is Self’s first Longlist entry which finally justifies him as a serious novelist, rather than the acerbic panellist and rent-a-rasp that he is currently perceived. Arresting in its scope, this is speculative fiction at its finest, taking in psychiatric disease, war, industrial change and feminism along its typically garrulous way. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber and Faber) In an incredibly Anglo-orientated list, this is discernible as being the only Eastern novel present. This début novel from one of India’s most revered poets focuses upon an opium den in Old Bombay and the characters that throng about it, casting an hitherto unknown light upon this heady, vibrant, yet corrupt city and its squirming underbelly.
The Longlist is completed by:
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon) Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber and Faber) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday) Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories) The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt) Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate) by Benjamin Lovegrove
A further shortlist of six titles will be announced in September 11, 2012