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Man Booker prize shortlist 2013 - how was our tipping?

10 September 2013

One of Philip Hensher’s many qualities as a critic is that he doesn’t take prisoners. So his entertaining and judicious guide to the Man Booker longlist ended like this:

‘The shortlist should comprise McCann, Tóibín, Mendelson, Crace, House and Catton. House’s novel is the one you ought to read, and Mendelson’s the one that everyone will read and love. The prize will go to Crace.’

We now know whether the judges have followed his advice. Answer: they went halfway with him. They have Jim Crace’s Harvest – so his tip for the winner is still on – Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

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But Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (Hensher: ‘has a liveliness of voice, but suffers from a remote tendency to cover every important subject afflicting the lives of its Zimbabwean slum-dwellers’), Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (‘not bad in its American-airport-bestseller style’) and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (‘a conventional researcher’s-homelife-versus-interesting-textual-discovery sort of novel’) appear in place of his other choices.

Given Hensher’s vivid descriptions of them, I reckon I’ll get to Richard House’s The Kills (‘a thrilling, overwhelming ride’) and Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English (‘sheer bliss’) before the second half of the official shortlist. Further evidence for making up your own mind here.

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  • Eddie

    Hensher is someone who espouses ‘political correctness’ and diversity worship in his columns, so it should come as no surprise to him that quality is not the sole reason books appear on book prize lists.

    At least half the shortlisted have to be women, and at least two ethnic minority – even if that excludes better male writers – though Hensher plays the gay card to get onto these lists as a minority-identity candidate.

    Moreover, themes with deal with racism, slavery, asylum seekers always do well (think the very average Pidgin English with its silly pigeon symbolism).

    My tip? Crace,. probably, but not a shoo-in – he has the disadvantage of being male and white, but the advantage of pandering to greenies (I found this novel achingly self-righteous about the environment, though it will appear to the ‘green’ yummy mummies with 2 cars and houses in Richmond and Tuscany (his novel The Gift of Stones is the one to read, and is a warning to all luddites on the left).

    But I have also had a little flutter on Ruth Ozeki (tipped by someone at a book magazine I know). I think she could win – and at 9-1, it’s worth a bet!

  • Minerva

    Homosexuality aside, why do so many literary prizes exclude those over 35? The Booker may not be one of them but the Spectator’s own travel writing prize is. Why 35? How old was Jean Rhys when she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea? Marguerite Duras when she wrote The Lover? Many come to the discipline of writing late, often they are women. Inequality has many faces but this is surely one of the strangest.

    • Eddie

      You are seeing sexism where none exists, love.
      Just as many men come to writing – and/or getting published – late as women.
      Next, you’ll be seriously arguing there is an unfair gender pay gap (rather than one that exists because of very obvious reasons – men work harder and longer, take more risks, work more in the private sector etc). Women get most benefits and healthcare spending, of course. Or perhaps you’ll argue that the ex-Orange prize isn’t sexist…
      Remember: the publishing industry, especially the agent business, is VERY female-dominated – and female writers (many of them woefully mediocre) can get published in so many places and by so many female-only publishing houses – men don’t have that opportunity.
      Oh and the BBC favours female writers and female-interest subject matter too – so much so that even male writers change their writing to get commissioned.
      Your post is one of the strangest, for sure…

      • Minerva

        Hello Eddie. You are quite right. Sexism isn’t the issue. It’s age. What is it about 35 that is so magical? Presumably the intention is to celebrate new writing talent. 35, after all, is hardly young. Yet all those new writers, men and women, who pick up their pens late in life find themselves excluded from a host of otherwise egaliterain-looking contests.

        • Eddie

          Yes, I agree with that. (Though there is a prize for writers over 40 – can’t remember the name. The Mackinley prize or something?

          Most agents want younger authors – who look good – to appeal to publishers, who can then get 2,3,5,6, novels out of them, and make more cash with each one.
          All marketing and PR – and all unfair.

          However, older writers can and do make it through. Many self-publish, which does not have the stigma it once did – many self-published authors sell 1,2, or more thousand books; the average 1st novel sale from mainstream publishers is 400, and most 1st novels lose money.

          It would be good to do an experiment maybe, on the lines of the ones they are always doing to ‘expose’ racism in job applications etc.

          Sent manuscripts to agents under different names, with different photos and CVs. I can assure you’ll they’ll pick the 23 year old black female writer who writes about ethnic women’s experience over the white man (or woman) who writes less PC novels.

          Maybe older writers need their own publishing house – in the manner of women’s, black and other publishers. Dare I say it, maybe white men need one of their own too… To balance things up, for the sake of fairness.

  • Will Honeycomb

    I always read Hensher’s reviews and always enjoy them. (I also enjoy Peter Robins’s occasional forays from the back office). And I’ll say it again: the Speccie’s online sprinkling of literary essays and observations are very welcome. Inconspicuous jewels: Austen Saunders, David Blackburn, JP O’Malley’s interviews, Christopher Fletcher…just for starters.

  • peter_robins

    It probably isn’t for me to say, either (I’m the Spectator’s chief sub, so I proofread the books pages, and I wrote the above-the-line post)… but if anyone has recently seen a less prolix and more interesting and authoritative assessment of a dozen books at a time, I’d love to read it.

  • Philip Hensher

    In the last two years, I have written 24 reviews for the Spectator. It is not for me to say whether they have been prolix and self-centred or not, but in those reviews I mentioned homosexuality twice – once when writing about a new edition of Constantine Cavafy’s poetry, where it might be thought to be a central topic, and once (in passing) in describing Freddie Mercury.

    I am not sure that this justifies the word “obsessed.”

    • MaxSceptic

      Mr Hensher, In retrospect I regret my earlier comment and its harsh criticism. This medium allows one to fire off arrows in careless ire without first engaging one sensibilities. You may not be my favourite book reviewer (or author) but your talent and industry are undeniable.

      (Daniel Mendelsohn’s new edition of Cavafy’s complete works is indeed a splendid book and made a wonderful birthday gift to a loved one).

  • MaxSceptic

    Hensher is my least favourite Speccie reviewer. I find his reviews prolix, self-centred and obsessed with homosexuality.

    His book likewise.

    • kevinlynch1005

      Given that your statement has been rebutted on every count, and those rebuttals concur with my own quick review of Hensher’s recent pieces from the archives, I think you may guilty of transference; in short, perhaps it is you who is obsessed with ‘phaggotry’…for whatever unhealthy reason….

      • MaxSceptic

        I’ve been reading The Spectator and its book reviews for far longer than two year. My opinions are based on my impressions over this extended period. If you don’t like or approve of them then you are quite entitled to your own.

        • kevinlynch1005

          On the contrary, I found your comment(s) to be entertaining. I may not agree (and see that you have to a degree, since recanted), but I was certainly entertained….which is all that really matters when it comes to light-reading.

          • MaxSceptic

            I am absolutely delighted that I’ve entertained you. Amusement is the sole rational explanation for reading and/or commenting on any blog.

            • kevinlynch1005

              I couldn’t agree more!

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