Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The Golden Booker prize shortlist is surprising

Had the jury read all 52 novels for the Golden Booker prize, there may well have been a vastly different shortlist

Few literary prizes grab readers’ attention like the Man Booker Prize. Since its inception in 1969, its shortlists and winners have been eagerly awaited, debated, dissected and criticized. Initially given to the best novel published in a given year in English in the Commonwealth, since 2014, the prize has expanded to include English fiction published anywhere, which includes the US. After Americans Paul Beatty and George Saunders won the last two, there was a backlash, expressing fears that Americans would now dominate the prize. 

This year being the prize’s golden jubilee, the organizers have created what literary critic Robert McCrum calls “a stunt, of course, but a surprisingly worthwhile one",—the Golden Booker, to be given to the best novel among the winners of the past 50 years. A jury of five was duly constituted, where each juror read novels of a specific decade and picked one novel per decade (McCrum covered the first decade, followed by Lemn Sissay, Kamila Shamsie, Simon Mayo and Hollie McNish); the final winner would be decided by popular vote. The shortlist is predictably surprising, and includes V.S. Naipaul’s In A Free State (1971), Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009), and George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo (2017). 

Notable absentees include John Berger’s G. (1972), Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974), Ruth Prawer Jhabwala’s Heat And Dust (1975), Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982), Peter Carey’s Oscar And Lucinda (1988), Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day (1989), Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995), Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things (1997), Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998), J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1998), and, most notably, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). Rushdie’s novel is special not only because of what it did to the English language and post-colonial imagination, but also because of its track record. In 1993, a jury selected it for the Booker of Bookers, awarded on the prize’s silver jubilee to the best novel among all the winners. Fifteen years later, on the prize’s 40th anniversary, Midnight’s Children won the Best of Booker after a public vote on a jury-selected shortlist. For it to stop at the first hurdle a decade later is surprising. 

Had the jury read all 52 novels (in 1974 and 1992, the prize was awarded jointly to two books each, and in 2010 an additional retrospective prize was awarded for 1970, to account for a rule change), there may well have been a vastly different shortlist. True, each decade had at least three great novels, and the rule ensured that each decade would be represented in the final list. But it also meant that if a decade had several blockbusters (1980s and 1990s, in particular), some great titles would have to be dropped, as has indeed happened. 

The Man Booker Prize rewards novels, and not novelists, so the novelist’s reputation should not sway anyone’s judgement. Indeed, with the exception of Naipaul, several Nobel Prize laureates who have won the Man Booker are conspicuous by their absence on the shortlist. And yet, leaving aside reputations, the list is weaker without some of the overlooked novels.

You can’t change the rules after the game has begun, so this is the shortlist the voters have. It is hard enough to predict who might win when a jury decides on the best novel of one year. It gets far more uncertain when the decision is left to readers at large. True, at the 40th anniversary too, the prize was decided by readers, but popular choices and critical choices do not always coincide. Some classics go on to become best-sellers, but few best-sellers are classics. But how many best-sellers of each year are remembered after a few years? Best-sellers have already won the big prize of popularity; it is literary fiction that needs space in crowded shelves at book stores.

If a classic is a novel that stands the test of time, how does this shortlist fare? Naipaul’s In A Free State collects three distinct stories connected by his concerns about class, race and colonization, but it seems dated. Lively’s Moon Tiger has a vast canvas, in which a historian on her deathbed is writing the story of her life, which also mirrors her interpretation of the history of the world. Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo is an experimental novel about grief and loss; too soon to tell if it will be a classic. 

The front-runners, it seems, are Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Mantel’s deservedly popular novel, set in Tudor England, tells the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the court of Henry VIII. Its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, published in 2012, also won the Man Booker Prize that year. The final volume, The Mirror And The Light, is expected next year. 

Ondaatje’s novel, set in North Africa during World War II, which brings together a Canadian nurse, a severely burnt pilot, a Sikh sapper, and a Canadian thief, is my favourite on this list. It is noteworthy not only for its sublime, lyrical prose, but also because of the important historical lesson it offers—that Britain did not fight World War II alone; that women and colonial subjects who were not white played a crucial role in vanquishing the Nazis; that we live in a complex world with intersecting and interwoven lives. At a time of narrowing identities, The English Patient offers a message of hope, which resonated when it first appeared, and sounds ever more important today. 

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

Close