- The Man Booker Prize for 2010
When the Man Booker Prize for 2010 was awarded to Howard Jacobson, for his novel The Finkler Question, the choice pleased observers for many reasons. Jacobson is English, and his victory, following Hilary Mantel's recognition for Wolf Hall in 2009, sustained a short streak of homegrown winners. Jacobson is relatively old (sixty-eight) and a veteran author (this is his [End Page 505] eleventh novel), and thus his selection reassured some who worry that the Man Booker is obsessed with youth and novelty. And more than one journalist insisted that this was the first Booker Award ever given to a comic novel. This is a more vexed claim than it appears not only because Kingsley Amis won the Booker in 1986 for The Old Devils but also because, though Jacobson is one of England's funniest novelists, this book is not one of his characteristic forays into comedy. The action is more melancholy than funny since it is built on the deaths of wives and the mourning and guilt that follow, on anti-Semitic hatred and crimes, and it has as a central character, a nebbish whose chief characteristics are pointlessness and ethnic envy.
Even the judges and organizers affected to recognize a move in the direction of humor. Ion Trewin, who administers the prize, declared that the six-novel shortlist contained "more humour . . . than I can recall in the history of the prize," and Andrew Motion, who chaired the judging panel, also identified several of the novels as, at least, tragicomic, while modestly admitting that the panel had not "set out to create a gallery of funny books." He mentioned Andrea Levy's The Long Song—a vivid account of slave rebellion in Jamaica—as "surprisingly comical."
In addition to Jacobson and Levy, the contending finalists were the South African Damon Galgut, with In a Strange Room; the Australian Peter Carey, with Parrot & Olivier in America; the Englishman Tom McCarthy, with C; and the Irish-born Canadian Emma Donoghue, with Room. Making the decision, together with Motion, were Rosie Blau, literary editor of the Financial Times; Tom Sutcliffe, a journalist; Frances Wilson, a biographer and critic; and (in the "colorful outsider to the literary world" slot) Deborah Bull, a former dancer and the creative director of the Royal Opera House.
Since the eventual decision was very narrow, with Jacobson's apparently winning over Carey by a 3-2 vote, there was surprisingly little controversy. It is an oddity that, as Frances Wilson revealed, neither Room nor The Finkler Question was actually submitted by its publisher. Publishers can nominate two books, but the panel can "call in" unsubmitted books they come to know about in some other way and only at the judges' request was Jacobson's book considered. As usual journalists pointed out who was missing from the list, including Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, and the perennially "snubbed" Martin Amis as well as the hotly debated longlisters Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. Announcing a longlist, then a shortlist, and then a winner permits three separate rounds of "why oh why?" discussions of who didn't make it. This year's competition was fairly subdued.
Bookmakers soon installed McCarthy's C as the overwhelming favorite, with Donoghue and Carey (his chances being complicated, though no one knew quite how, by his having won the Booker twice already) also given good odds. About a week before the announcement, in fact, Ladbrokes, one of Britain's leading bookmakers, suspended all betting owing to a suspicious [End Page 506] flood of bets on McCarthy placed by "the literary world, and some literary critics." In the event...