The Man Booker International Prize short list will be revealed on Thursday, April 12. I am sure that the official judges are pondering each of the thirteen novels on the long list, discussing amongst themselves which six ought to be included in the final round. It can’t be an easy job. It isn’t easy for me, and I am not an official judge, a professor, or professional reviewer. I simply stand on the five decades of experience, and volume of books, I’ve accumulated as a reader.
Yet there is the matter of personal preference, which came up today in a fragmented discussion between me and a fellow shadow jury member. He feels a very strong emotional attachment to a book I cared about not in the slightest. I value his opinion highly, and I stand in awe of his beautifully articulated reviews. So where do we go from here? The other members of the shadow jury will weigh in, and we’ll sort it out. But, there are a few qualities which make me feel a book is prize-worthy beyond the quality of the writing itself.
For me, an exceptional book must have an honorable aspect, something that sets it apart from the common, degrading, dark aspects of life. Of course those elements exist, but I need to have more to hang on to. I need to know that there is something beyond filth and despair when I have finished such a novel, even if it is only a lesson. (Charlotte’s Web is a good example. One could argue that it contains aspects of murder and death as Wilber is slated for slaughter and his best friend does, in fact, die. But, balanced with this reality are honorable things like friendship and self-sacrifice and hope for the future.) Don’t give me a book which is nothing but bleak despair, leave me with only that in my mind, and expect me to claim it deserves an award.
The other thing a novel must have, for me, is an emotional connection. I need to feel that if I haven’t cried, at least there were tears close at hand; if I haven’t laughed, at least I’ve smiled. I need to put the book down from time to time in order to fully absorb it, or record some powerful thought. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them, even if the outcome is only derived from my own imagination. They need to breathe and move and leap off the page for me, instead of laying there inert.
It’s probably a good thing I’m not representing a specific publisher or author, that I write my blog purely for my own pleasure in recording what I’ve read and my opinion about those titles. Surely members of the Shadow Jury panel don’t agree with me completely; after all, we take into consideration the quality of the writing, the content of the novel, and the longevity we think it will hold in the future. No where is there a category to score a novel in terms of “honor” or “emotional impact”. Those are just two qualities which are important to me.
And you? What makes a book most noteworthy in your opinion?