The Golden Man Booker Shortlist Reaction & Discussion

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker, this year they’ve launched the Golden Man Booker, where five judges were each assigned a decade of past Man Booker winners and chosen what they believe is the most exemplary work of their decade.  Now those 5 books have been selected and it’s going to be put to a vote by the general public, to determine the best ever Man Booker winner.

When I first heard about this prize, I was quite excited, as I enjoy following the Man Booker and there are quite a few past winners I’ve been dying for a good excuse to read, as well as plenty that I believe would be very worthy winners.  I was already trying to make room for this shortlist in my June TBR.  But admittedly, when I saw this list my heart sank.  I’ll be honest: I am incredibly bored by this selection of books.  Is this really the best of the best?  Was breaking it up by decade the best way to go about this?  Anyway, let’s take a look at all of these:

 

In A Free State by VS Naipaul: I’ve never read any of Naipaul’s work, and I have no doubt that he’s a skilled and accomplished writer, but it is also well documented that he’s a misogynistic ass.  And look, we can talk about separating the art from the artist all day long, but at the end of the day, a prize like this is honoring the author just as much as the book itself.  And it’s not 1971 anymore.  In our current social climate, when #MeToo and #TimesUp are (rightfully) gaining traction, it’s an insult to shortlist a writer who’s openly disdainful of women in a prize which honors the best fiction of the past 50 years.  I might read this book eventually, especially if I ever commit myself to reading the Man Booker backlist, but it’s not something I’m feeling particularly excited about.  Anyway, I was really hoping Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea would be the 70s winner to finally give me a push to read it.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: The only book I haven’t read that I both own and know exactly where it is, so this is the one I’m most likely to pick up.  Unfortunately the summary isn’t holding my attention terribly well… but at least it’s relatively short.  I’m particularly sad that my biggest horse in this race, Kazuo Ishiguro, wasn’t chosen in this category for The Remains of the Day, which I think is a phenomenal book.  But I’m glad to see two female writers on the shortlist.  Another one I’d have liked to have seen chosen is The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which I’ve had on my shelf for ages and which I’ve been dying to pick up.  It’s also noteworthy that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children wasn’t the choice here, as it won the “Booker of Bookers” prize to celebrate the MB’s 25th anniversary.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: Ok, this is admittedly ridiculous of me, but you know that Seinfeld episode where Elaine hated the film adaptation of The English Patient?  Elaine Benez is my fictional alter-ego so I have always taken for granted that I would hate The English Patient.  Talk about weird associations we make in our heads.  Anyway, I think I own this… somewhere… I will probably read it once it has been located.  My 90s vote would have been for any of these books that I haven’t read: Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (a seminal Irish writer I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet), The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (I have an ARC of her latest book but still haven’t read anything by her), or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (which I’ve heard such wonderful things about).  I guess it says a lot about Kamila Shamsie’s objectivity that she didn’t go with The God of Small Things, as she and Roy were both longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (Shamsie was shortlisted while Roy was not).

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: This is such a polarizing book, but I have a feeling I’m going to like it.  I enjoy Tudor history as well as sort of dense historical fiction.  I’m not going to rush out to read it as it’s so long and seems like a bit of a time commitment that I just can’t give at the moment, but I fully intend to read it eventually.  I think The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood would have been a worthy choice (the only Atwood novel I’ve actually enjoyed), and I would have loved the excuse to read The Sea by John Banville over the excuse to read Wolf Hall, but oh well.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This is the only winner on this list that I’ve read so far.  This is an interesting one.  It wasn’t my first choice to win, but I did appreciate it and was glad they gave the award to a book which succeeded in pushing boundaries and challenging genre conventions in a way I’ve rarely seen before.  But my bigger question is: in an award which endeavors to reward the book that has ‘stood the test of time,’ should last year’s winner even be in the running?  I’m not saying it shouldn’t – I really haven’t made up my mind.  But since the winner is going to a public vote, doesn’t it look likely that the book that most people have read – the most recent winner – is going to be the front-runner?  I can’t help but to feel like Lincoln in the Bardo would the most anticlimactic winner of the Golden Man Booker, if only because of its release date… but maybe that’s not fair.

So, by the logic I’ve just laid out, I think Lincoln in the Bardo or Wolf Hall is going to be crowned winner next month, but I wouldn’t be surprised by The English Patient.  I would be surprised by In A Free State, but I would be absolutely dumbfounded if Moon Tiger claims the victory.  That’s not an assessment of what I think is most and least deserving (as I’ve said, I’ve only read one of these books); just what I think is most and least likely.

I don’t think I’ll be reading the shortlist after all, and as such, I probably won’t be voting.  I liked Lincoln in the Bardo, but not passionately enough to confidently cast my vote for it.  But maybe eventually I’ll read all of these books.  Maybe I’ll put together my own Golden Man Booker shortlist, and choose the book from each decade that I’ve most been wanting to read, and make this my excuse to finally read them.  I won’t be doing that in June, I have plenty of other books I need to be reading, but maybe I can fit that in at some point in the second half of this year.  Would anyone join me if I did that?  Not with my list, necessarily, but in making your own and committing yourself to reading them at some point.

So anyway – what do you guys think?  Are you going to vote, and if so, who for?  What do you think of the shortlist in general?  Are you going to try to read it?  And what do you think of the inclusion of 2017 winner in a prize which is attempting to reward longevity in literary resonance?  Comment and let me know, I’d love to hear from you!

12 thoughts on “The Golden Man Booker Shortlist Reaction & Discussion

  1. I completely agree with you! I was not at all inspired by this list. I read and enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo but not enough to root for it to win. The only book on the list that I might pick up is Wolf Hall and only because I have seen a lot of people hoping it wins. Great post!

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    • Thank you! Ugh, I’m glad I’m not alone in this reaction – what a thoroughly anticlimactic list. I do especially want to read Wolf Hall, but not badly enough to force myself to read it in the next month. I was hoping I’d be inspired to rush out and pick up at least ONE of the shortlisted books immediately, but nope.

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  2. I was also very underwhelmed. I think selecting by decade was a mistake. Of course it’s all inherently subjective anyway, but there’s no denying the reality that some decades will have produced better/more popular winners than others. The possibility that the overall winner could be deemed weaker than many that didn’t even have a fair chance to make it on to the shortlist is odd to me. It’s supposed to be ‘the best of the best’, not ‘the best of its decade compared to the best of other decades’…

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    • YES exactly. I was thinking of choosing a book from each decade that I’ve been wanting to read, but when I got to the 2010s I realized I’d be choosing one of those books just to fill the category as none of them particularly appeal to me, instead of doubling up on a different decade. (Though I may do it anyway.) Also, I don’t like that it was only one judge choosing for each decade. As you pointed out, it’s all subjective anyway, but it bothers me that there was no panel discussion involved in this selection. I struggle to believe that VS Naipaul’s book would have been chosen if there had been a woman or member of any kind of minority group on that panel, instead of it being arbitrarily selected by a straight white man. Ugh, there are just so many better ways they could have gone about this process.

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      • Exactly! It’s scope is very limited because of the way the selection process has been handled. I would have felt the list had much more clout had it been chosen by a panel from a full list of all the eligible books. As you said, a book being on the shortlist comes with no backing other than one person having chosen it.

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  3. I am a frequent re-reader of The English Patient (maybe because I am in love with the film so much and even own the same book in three different languages), but I honestly do not consider the novel to be any masterpiece or literary genius or anything even close to that. It has some weighty faults, in both narrative and style, in my personal view. But then again, maybe my view is not very objective since I regard the film so much better than the book. Oh well.

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    • I’m actually much more likely to pick it up after a comment like this – this has me curious! I like to read books before I watch their adaptations, but after I get around to reading it I’ll definitely watch the film as well.

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  4. Moon Tiger is a really lovely book, sad and succinct and evocative all at the same time. I do encourage you to give it a go! (I also love Wolf Hall and Lincoln In the Bardo, though was equally surprised that the latter made this list. Haven’t read the Ondaatje or the Naipaul though.)

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    • Oh that’s great to hear, I hadn’t heard from anyone who’s actually read it. I’ll definitely give it a shot! All of those adjectives appeal to me. Which one are you voting for, if any?

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  5. I so agree that having on judge per decade is such a weird idea. I mean, yes, of course, literary prizes are always subjective, but not THIS subjective. I don’t think I will be reading the short list after all. Because there is NO way I am reading Wolf Hall. Historical Fiction and me just do not get along well enough to read a book this long. But I am looking forward to your thoughts 🙂
    I read The English Patient ages ago and remember being mostly bored and mostly not understanding how this is a modern classic. But I read it in German, so it might be better in English. (Also, like I said, historical fiction is not my favourite)

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