- The Booker Prize 2016
The judges for the Man Booker Prize have never been known for their sense of humor. Funny novels seldom win the award; the most recent winner described as comic was Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question in 2010, but its comedy was sour and intermittent. The 2015 prize selections were no exception to this history of humorlessness. In fact the most successful joke came from two of the titles—Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is 720 pages long, and, at 688 pages, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is brief only by contrast. It feels even longer than Yanagihara’s book if only because about half of its content is written in Jamaican patois.
These books are not just long, they are harrowing. They constitute a parade of horrors—in A Little Life most of them happen to one man, while in A Brief History they pervade a society. But this is not exceptional in a year when the six novels on the short list were all, in the words of the chair of the judges’ panel, “pretty grim. There’s a tremendous amount of violence in these books. If you just told the plot it would be unbelievably grim.” He went on to offer the explanation, “you can think of it as a portrait of where we are.”
Of course judgments about “where we are” are relative to who we are, and the judges who seemingly endorsed this assessment (the decision to award James the prize for his long and blood-drenched novel was reportedly quick and unanimous) were Chair Michael Wood, an Englishman and emeritus professor at Princeton; Ellah Alfrey OBE, a critic and editor; Frances Osborne, the author of several biographies and one novel; Sam Leith, literary editor of the Spectator; and John Burnside, an author of poetry and fiction. In some previous years the majority of practicing authors and critics has been leavened by a celebrity—a comedian, actor, or Member of Parliament—but this year every judge was a serious, bookish appointment.
The Booker process occurs in three steps. The first, after some months of mentioning and predicting, occurs when the judges announce the long list. The 2015 long list was made public on July 28. It included thirteen books; of these the largest contingent consisted of five American authors. There were three British authors, a Nigerian, an Indian, a New Zealander, a Moroccan, [End Page 674] and the first nominated Jamaican author in the history of the prize, eventual winner Marlon James.
The Booker is nothing without conflict. Generating controversy to increase book sales has been acknowledged by its administrators as one of the purposes of the competition. Publicizing the long list was another way to introduce such controversy. Until recently, despite rumors and alleged leaks, the names on the long list were secret—not often a well-kept secret, but at least officially nobody knew how the large stack of books considered (156 in the 2015 competition, made up from those nominated by their publishers and some others invited by the judges) had been narrowed to six until the release of the short list.
With the 2015 long list, as in every year, commentators concerned themselves with who did not make it. Among the well-established writers whose books fell at the first hurdle were Jonathan Franzen, William Boyd, and former winners Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, John Banville, and Margaret Atwood. In recent years it has become customary to declare that Rushdie was “snubbed” in any year when he could have won it but did not. He seems reconciled, now, to his time having passed. He told the Cheltenham Literature Festival that the judges are “deliberately eschewing established authors in favour of unknown novelists” and...