My Thoughts on the Man Booker Prize Long List for 2016, Not What You Might Expect

man-booker-2016I come to the Man Booker Prize this year much like I come to the Presidential election in November: is this the best there is from which I must choose? While neither candidate of either party satisfies the criteria I am looking for in a leader, neither is there a book in the long list which satisfies the criteria I hold for an outstanding novel. (Only one comes even close.)

What makes an outstanding novel? That’s like describing what makes a truly delicious meal; you can hardly pinpoint the separate elements, but they all combine to make a memorable, unique experience.

For me, a prizeworthy novel has story. It has story which not only wraps me up in its intrigue, it brushes the facets of my own life. It causes me to say, “Oh! I know what that is, or at least I’ve felt that before.”

It has characters that breathe. Characters that feel so real it’s as though they’ve joined me in my living room. We could sit and have a chat together over a cup of tea, and even if we disagree, we have spoken to one other. (If only you were there for the tête-à-tête’s Anna Karenina and I have had.)

It has writing so beautiful I could weep. It has passages that make me pause in my reading to record them in my reading journal; it has quotes that I want to remember long after the novel is finished.

When I consider Man Booker winners in the past, I marvel at their permanence in my life. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of The Day (1989), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013), Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to The Deep North (2014) and my personal favorite of all time, a book so meaningful to me that I’ve never written about it, A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), are all novels I keep on my shelves. I will take them with me if ever I should move.

What would I take with me from this year’s Man Booker short list? My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is the only one. And as the (Wo)Man Shadow Jury decided to come up with our personal top six for today, and then our top six as a panel tomorrow, I would add the following: The Many by Wyl Menmuir, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, The North Water by Ian McGuire, His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnet.

Yes, I can count. That’s only five. But, there isn’t another book I would add. As for what I believe will be on the official short list? Most certainly it will include Paul Beatty’s The Sellouthis accusations disguised as humor are well received in today’s political climate.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s verdict from the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury, for not everyone agrees with the point of view I have expressed just now. Until then, I leave you with an apt quote from Madeleine Thien’s book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing:

Though, in general, anything universally praised is usually preposterous rubbish.

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17 thoughts on “My Thoughts on the Man Booker Prize Long List for 2016, Not What You Might Expect”

  1. Like you I find it hard to see a stand out novel from this year’s batch. My wishlist – which is. It th same as the list I think will actually get announced – includes thre of yiur choices: North Water, The Many and Lucy Barton. Of those if I had to plump for one it would be The Many even though I am puzzled by many of its ideas.

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      1. The Many and My Name is Lucy Barton are definitely my two favored books, and it doesn’t surprise me that they are included in your favorites as well. I think we have similar tastes. Some women on the Wo-Man Booker Shadow Jury felt that The North Water was over the top drama, while others felt it was a great story of action and adventure. I have a foot in each camp; I liked it overall, but I didn’t love it. It doesn’t hold lasting merit for me. Won’t it be interesting to see what the judges pick?

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  2. I’ve read Strout, Moshfegh and Kennedy and am currently reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing which seems very promising so far. Apart from Serious Sweet, I would be happy to see any of them on the shortlist but I agree that it is harder to pick a truly standout title this year.

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    1. Do Not Say We Have Nothing started out so promising for me, and then I just got
      mired down in a story that seemed to
      get longer and longer, which ultimately I didn’t care about. It had vestiges of The Good Earth, a novel I love, and Ha Jian’s The Dark Road, which was listed for the IFFP a few years ago; I like reading about China, and I liked Thien’s writing with beautifully constructed sentences. I just couldn’t become enthralled with her story. Maybe another time I’ll try again, and I certainly hope you like it.

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  3. Yes, story and characters! The books on this year’s list had some good writing, but most of them fell short on story or characters (or both). All the literary fireworks in the world are unlikely to help if those two elements aren’t there.

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    1. I know, Teresa, you and I are the ones who love story and characters the best! And I agree, without those, other literary fireworks which may have been thrown in by the author will surely fizzle out.

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  4. I loved reading your criteria for an outstanding novel and feel the same way when it comes to a great book. The books the move me to tears or have me reaching for yet another Post-It flag in order to mark a beautiful passage; an author whose words reflect my on feelings about a particular subject; and a sense of place so perfectly depicted, I can taste the salty spray from the ocean or hear the loons calling to one another across a lake… These are the element which create a remarkable and memorable book. I’m sorry you didn’t discover more from this year’s Man Booker Long List. However, I’m still very excited and eager to read My Name is Lucy Barton and hope that I share your opinion of Strout’s novel.

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    1. Not surprised you and I agree, dear Lesley, and I have seen your books filled with Post-It’s! I stand in awe of those, and most especially your reading journal which I have just now started in my Midori Traveler’s Notebook. All these years, and I find the blog posts aren’t really enough to record all my thoughts. Plus, I hold some back as I never want to offend, although in this post I feel I was quite critical. 😦

      I hope that My Name is Lucy Barton speaks to you as it did me. It was the clear winner of the bunch for me.

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  5. I love how well you know yourself as a reader, how easily and gracefully you define what you value in a great or prize-worthy novel. This year’s list was decidedly imperfect to many but I was able to easily pick 6 that I felt stood apart from the others. I feel that the titles I chose speak to the sense of alienation running through our world right now, the less plotted efforts a reflection of those loss of moorings in the world.

    Wonderful reading with you as always! I know we will keep discussing this list right up to the awarding of the prize, and that great conversation is enough to keep me hip to hip with this unusual list. 🙂

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    1. When I reread my post, I find myself quite an emotional reader, much more in that camp than rational. But you, good friend, bring reason and intellect to my emotional tributaries, and you help balance my thoughts.

      I completely agree that the titles you chose, and some of them I choose too, speak to the alienation in our world right now. And when it comes right down to it, isn’t it the job of the writer, the artist, to reflect our times? Our aching wounds? I think so. I think that’s the part I should have added to my list of criteria in this post.

      Looking forward to further discussions always, as we choose a winner and beyond into other reading ventures. Thank you for establishing this group, for being my friend.

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  6. I have no knowledge of these books except Lucy Barton so I can’t offer an opinion on them. I’m not sure what you’re getting at with your final quote? Rubbish is a strong word, and selecting fiction prize winners is such a subjective endeavor.

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  7. I thought it was an interesting quote precisely because determining a winner is so subjective: one person’s favorite may be what another person considers rubbish. And sometimes, the judges tend to go exactly with what is opposite of what I would have chosen.

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  8. I haven’t been keeping up with these books (have only read Eileen), but I have been following along with many bloggers who have been reading this longlist. And, it’s fun to see everyone’s different reactions and opinions on what is good and what is not. That is what makes it all so interesting. Thanks for being part of it!
    And, oh, what a great quote! In so many areas of life…

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    1. You are so good at following what other bloggers are doing, whereas lately I’ve been rather stuck in my own corner. Glad you can appreciate the quote as I do, and you’re right about it applying to many areas. My dear friend has a quote that says, “When were the masses ever right? The masses crucified Christ.” So there’s that, too.

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  9. Love your description of what makes an outstanding novel – its spot on! I think the Strout book is an outstanding novel and I can’t wait to read it again – I just got a hard copy of it. That’s disappointing the other books didn’t really stand out. I love that quote – that’s usually how I feel about the bestsellers everyone’s raving about that I don’t ever seem to like.

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