Let’s talk about what determines a prize winning novel, shall we?

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?

26 thoughts on “Let’s talk about what determines a prize winning novel, shall we?”

  1. Good post, and I think this is, or should be, a struggle all judges have, shadow or otherwise.

    For me, the criteria you put forward aren’t hugely relevant to my understanding or belief of a novel’s importance. It matters, but not much. I am much more interested in form and structure, and rarely if ever seek a connection with characters or situations. I like those things, but they aren’t my primary driver for a novel. I have a (very) soft spot for detective novels. I dislike sex scenes in novels because I roll my eyes too often, but I don’t want to read a novel which ignores sex altogether. Of course, there are caveats for everything.

    So how then would we come to an agreement on a book? We may not, and then I wonder if that results in the mushy, half-hearted, I-win-some-you-lose-some victories of books. If I’m on one side of an argument, and you are on the other, do we just meet in the middle for a safe outcome?

    I would hope that the above doesn’t happen, and that each winner (of any prize) deserves it and that the arguments for the win are strong and understandable. But I can’t quite untangle how I might ‘win’ if it means you ‘lose’, because your desires are valid, too, which puts us back, I think, into the mush of the middle.

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  2. What a wonderful response! You have given me much to consider. First, I like detective novels myself. Very much. And thrillers that don’t have The Woman Who…or The Girl…If you know what I mean.

    I have a blogger friend about whom I care very much who also says that the characters are not important to him; he doesn’t consider the characters to be friends (as I tend to do) at all. I wonder if this is a male/female point of view, both of you being male, but please understand I am not being sexist. I’m simply saying that perhaps many women like relationship or character driven stories. But, I should only speak for myself.

    Of course the structure of a novel is critical. When things tie together too neatly, or wrap up too suddenly, or if in any way I feel manipulated by the author, I am immediately put off. So, I would agree with you about form and structure (and I’ll throw in plot) being essential.

    And there, we aren’t in a “mush of the middle” at all. I think generally, serious readers know a good book, and differ very little in what determines a great one. The judges will be able to do so too, if they aren’t pulled into a decision by political or cultural trends alone. (Such as when The Iraqi Christ won the IFFP a few years ago.)

    By the way, I read a fabulous parody on literary prizes by St. Aubyn, whom I adore, where a cookbook accidentally entered into the prize was the one which won. Fabulous book, about which I cared for the characters very little; the plot-theme-structure was more important there. Of course, it also had a delightful message.

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  3. Well, for me characters are the accumulation of the words used to describe them, and don’t posses any traits in and of themselves. What I mean by that is I never really feel like I know a character because I’m not setting out to forge a relationship. I never visualise them or have any clue how they look. If I am told they have brown hair, then I am interested in the way this information is conveyed more than the information itself, if that makes sense. I don’t expect them or want them or need them to have a life before or after the text.

    I suppose in some ways I consider the writer more of a friend than the characters or any other aspect of a novel. After reading, say, a couple of novels by a writer I feel (if I appreciate and like their work) that I understand them in their idealised representation. This is not me confusing content with intent, or saying that the views espoused by a character, plot of book need be an author’s. But, it is true that nonetheless an author has written the words I have read, and they have deliberately written what appears on the final printed page. Yes, the madness of art can exist, but that is even more aligned with what I am saying as it becomes then a closer expression of self.

    Let me provide a more concrete example so I can unravel my own thoughts. Some writers I admire – Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, Albert Camus, W. G. Sebald, Saul Bellow, Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, Jorge Louis Borges. The common thread, if there is one, seems to me to be an unfolding of self along lines I personally find appealing – literature, art, violence, possibility, unknowingness. Not all of these writers write primarily in first person, but a number do, and for writers such as Bellow I believe he is at his best when his characters break into the narrative and momentarily seize the “I” to reinforce their feelings or ideas.

    It’s probably no accident that these writers are all men, though that hasn’t been my intention. I picked the writers I have read the most as that likely indicates I appreciate them more than others, but if I look to (for me) up-and-coming writers, Valeria Luiselli and Herta Müller appeal for similar reasons, I’ve just read them less as I discovered them more recently.

    At any rate, after reading, say, five books in a row by any of the above writers, I am well immersed less in the individual characters or plots, and more in the conceits, interests, failings, obsessions, etc of the writer itself, and that is where I forge my relationship. I feel a connection to the mind who has created these works, who has sprung into life these ideas, and plots, and methods of conveying information, and, yes, characters, and it is to them I turn my affection or interest. And yet, curiously, I never want to hear them speak, or have any interest in their life outside their work. I want only the books they have written. I’ve never quite understood why this is except perhaps for my belief that their work is their truest self, truer perhaps than even knowing them or being married to them or perhaps being them? Which may stem from my own desires for my own writing.

    I agree that prizes sometimes fail when politics, geography, culture, the zeitgeist, etc, become the dominant force. It’s hard to argue with, but it’s a shame that a country must be bombed first before it can be admired for its art. Here in Australia, about ten years ago there were quite a number of memoirs published by women fleeing persecution in Middle Eastern countries – and the public was interested in this purely because these women had settled here and Australia was engaged over there. But why weren’t those women’s voices considered worthy before then? Of course, of course, one should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and it’s better that these voices are raised at all than silenced forever, but it is equally unappealing to consider that, say, Albanian or Estonian writers are completely ignored here in Australia because, currently, we have nothing to do with them so don’t care what they think. What are we missing out on?

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    1. I like this line from your comment in particular: “…an unfolding of self along lines I find personally appealing. Literature, art, possibility, unknowingness.” Beautifully said! Yes, indeed.

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  4. For me, it’s intellectual stimulation. An award-winning book has to have some kind of intellectual importance, i.e. it needs to have something intelligent and original to say about the human condition. The human condition being what it is, it is highly likely that despair becomes an inevitability in certain situations, and I do not want to be insulated from that just because I am lucky to live in a congenial place at a congenial time in its history. I don’t think it’s possible to be a good global citizen and not expose yourself to the horrible things that happen in the world and have no hopeful solution in sight.
    While I sometimes admire a writer who can arouse empathy, I am less likely to enjoy an emotional book. I don’t care for being manipulated into weepiness, and feeling connected to characters is irrelevant to me when I am reading.

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    1. I love your response which is just what I was trying to get at. I certainly didn’t mean to imply thhat I want to be manipulated into tears, or any other feeling. I meant that I want the power of emotion that comes to me when I read Anna Karenina, for example, or in a completely different vein, Atlas Shrugged. So, yes yes yes to intellectual stimulation (which in turn produces a powerful reaction). You said it better than I did in far less words.

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  5. I wish more judges would lay out their tastes like this – I mean not just bloggers, but so-called “real” judges. It would remove some of the mystification from the prizes. Make it clearer what any given prize is trying to do. Very useful.

    I will note that I personally care about characters a lot, and do become friends with them in a sense, but at the same time recognize that they are rhetorical devices, imaginary – art. Readers can do two things at once, even contradictory things. It is one of the deep pleasures of reading, really, being simultaneously inside and outside of a great book, the emotional and intellectual parts of the brain working together (or fighting it out).

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    1. I SO WISH the judges would lay out their reasoning.

      You and I have discussed characters and their place in our reading before; I think I am more connected to them than you tend to be, but I really like what you said here: “It is one of the deep pleasures of reading, really, being simultaneously inside and outside of a great book, the emotional and intellectual parts of the brain working together (or fighting it out).”

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  6. I enjoyed yo9ur post, and found much to ponder on contained in the thoughtful and detailed comments from your readers. I’m saving this to Pocket, so I can re-read, and assemble my own thoughts. Briefly, when it comes to awards, it seems to me that political correctness and trendiness often appear to shape the final results. Just my opinion, from the southern tip of Africa, removed as I am from the Northern hemisphere zeitgeist.

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    1. I completely agree that political correctness and trends are powerful enough to shape (or worse yet determine) the results. It would be nice to think the literary merit of the books was th most significant thing. I’m glad that you were intrigued by the comments left here, as am I. There is a lot to think about for both of us!

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  7. I really enjoyed this post, particularly because I have been thinking about this since yesterday afternoon. I am reading most of the books on the Stella shortlists (prize for Australian women’s writing) and just finished Terra Nullius. I would always expect something quite literary yet innovative to win a prize but this novel is commercial speculative fiction. If the Stella prize really does genuinely encompass all type of genres (as it claims) then I think it has a good chance of winning.

    Usually for me it is: innovative, literary and leaves me thinking. I think ‘literary’ is just my personal preference. A more mainstream novel would always get a wider readership which is always a good thing, so should they be so overlooked?
    These have been my thoughts for the last 24 hours!

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    1. I completely agree that a prize-worthy novel is one which is innovative and thought-provoking. Otherwise, everything just blends together. I remember when Harry Potter was first published, and so popular; every book I was asked to review in my earliest days of blogging (12) years ago was a wizard story. It was exhausting, not to mention tedious, to keep refusing those requests. One good wizard story is all we needed (after Lord of the Rings). 🙂 Anyway, the special novel is the unique one, agreed.

      Also, I have never read for the Stella prize. I kept confusing it at first, when I read of it on different blogs, with the Strega prize which is Italy’s.

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  8. I would say I’m in agreement with you about the need for an “honorable aspect,” or as Lisa put it “something intelligent to say about the human condition.” I think of Tolstoy in “What is Art?” saying a lot of objectionable things, but the kernel of his idea, that art is linked in some way to morality, is one I find myself increasingly gravitating towards. I think of a book like “The Tunnel” by William Gass, with its highly unsympathetic narrator, and ask myself “How do you criticize something that’s willfully, intentionally unpleasant?” and I feel like the answer is, “Does this show us something real/ Do I understand now *a certain way of being, of existing in the world* in a way that I didn’t before? Does it feel like this book represents that way of being plausibly? (which is the same as to say *instructively*, because in order to be taught at the internal lesson, I have to believe [external lessons, like this mode of representing something does/does not work, are another matter].)

    I also feel like it’s possible to answer the “Does this show . . .” question by giving partial credit, as in “The representation works in these ways, doesn’t work in these other ways, and I’m weighting them in these amounts for this reason” (which is part of why I’ve experimented with rubrics in my review; an attempt to innumerate my answers to these questions.) But while the particulars of what makes one work of art work and another not are complex and enjoyable to get into the details of, I do think morality/an honorable aspect/truth about the human condition is what it all seems to go back to.

    This approach to evaluating lit might seem fatal to any appreciation of style/aesthetics/beauty, the idea being that there is a style/substance dichotomy and if art is about morality that eliminates the style side of the ledger from consideration; I guess (being someone for whom style counts a lot) I would say that style is another form of moral representation; it is a demonstration of the potentialities of human ingenuity, which exploration (like landing on the moon, or discovering DNA) is in itself moral because it expands our potentialities, shows us what we can be and do.

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    1. Trust Tolstoy to say, and you to remember, that “art is linked in some way to morality”. It seems from reading your first paragraph alone that you grapple as I am with the way that writing and honor ought to be somehow connected.

      For me, as a Christian, and I do not want to be in a position of admonishment, this verse kept coming up (especially when I was reading and digesting Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz): “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8 ESV There is no denying the power of her book, and for that reason alone it carries tremendous weight. But, I cannot give it the prize because there is nothing in it that is commendable whatsoever. Compared to Jenny Erpenbeck’s book, Go, Went, Gone, which tore a hole in my heart for the refugees which had been only a pinprick before reading it. I realize I have turned this comment into a lecture now, when I am only meaning to speak about my perspective, not what the judges must consider.

      My goodness, I guess I could go on and on, and please excuse me if I have meandered far from the path you were on as you kindly left your comment. This is me thinking out loud as the matter is far from resolved in my mind. I do not expect secular books to carry the moral value of spiritual ones. But, at the same time, I do not want to dwell in the pit with no spark of light. No redemption for the human spirit whatsoever.

      Let me end with exploration, as your do in your comment. The reason I immerse myself in translated literature so thoroughly is in a large part due to the fact that it takes me into other worlds, lets me explore other thoughts or experiences, and for that I am immensely grateful. Not to mention interested. I guess it comes down to loving literature in translation, but not wanting the hopeless books to come away with the top prize. If we lose hope, we have lost everything.

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      1. I suppose where I’ve settled with the “unpleasant books” is that I am not opposed to darkness, but I feel like it needs to be honest darkness. (I’m previewing my review of Woman at 1,000 Degrees here—a book that uses its main character’s decrepitude for laughs, and has her carry around a defective hand grenade—also for laughs; and I suppose I’m finding this implausible and, consequently, not that funny. I’m not saying the book needs to be relentlessly grim; but I feel like there’s some happy humanistic balance that can be struck between too grim and too nonchalant; there’s a missing sense of authenticity that I don’t get from this book.)

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        1. Absolutely! Perfectly said about some humanistic balance. Off subject, perhaps, but I was totally offended by The Power and discontinued reading it. It seems the book yoi speak of resembles that.

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  9. As someone new to your blog, I have been enjoying your shadow jurying(?) of this prize. THis is the first time I’ve actually attempted to read the entire longlist, and while I might finish it before the winner is announced I have been struck by just how weird the choices have been. Not that I’m complaining. I am still very new in the world of translations, it have been slowly taking over my reading life, but I am also very new in the world of literature. What I look for in a good book (and what I want from a prize) is something that is not willing to conform to the norm and is going to teach me something about either the author’s life, ideas or the culture they live in.

    I think this years long list has been dominated by books that blur the line with non-fiction and fiction. Some I would consider downright non-fiction. It has been fun to read the books but I have no idea what will make the shortlist. I have no idea what criteria the judges will take. Will they go for the fiction? will they go for the ones that were emotional engaging? are they more interested in the writing style? It could go any way.

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    1. I have enjoyed sharing comments, thoughts and ideas with you as we journey down this MBIP 2018 together. I have not finished three of them, because while the publishers promised to send them to me they have not yet arrived. But, it is indeed a very diverse list, isn’t it? From Iraq to Germany to the mountains of Kham in Tibet, we have traveled the world, and the style varies as much as well. Poetry and prose are both included in this year’s list. Perhaps the judges want to cover a wide array of possibilities, and they certainly have afforded me a view far outside of myself. Sometimes I have gone where I would not necessarily have chosen to go (in a monster’s body comprised of corpse’s parts, or a woman who is essentially mad from her post-partum depression) but I am forced to expand my thinking by the ideas represented in this year’s list.

      As for what the judges will choose for the final six, let alone the prize itself, it certainly can go any way. I never presume to guess with any accuracy, for more often than not they chose exactly what I have disliked the most. (The Sellout by Paul Beatty for the Man Booker. The Iraqi Christ for the IFFP years ago, or A Horse Walks Into a Bar last year.) They seem to chose either the most sarcastic, or the most politically correct novel. But one year, they chose The Detour by Germand Bakker, and another year they chose The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, and both of those are truly remarkable, special books.

      Soon I will post what my personal favorites are, and I look forward to reading what yours will be.

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      1. I can’t wait to see what your favourites will be. I am impress you were able to get most of the book to read. I did have to rely on my kindle more than I would normally but I am getting to most of the books. I think the The Flying Mountain will be the one I might miss.

        I myself are all for the sarcastic but geee, I still can’t believe Horse Walked into a Bar won. I’m glad I made the effort to follow the shadow jury (and former jury)…they have all peer pressured me into reading the list and blog more. 😀 I can’t wait to write on my blog, I have been doing it for 9 years and it feels good to be passionate about it again.

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        1. It’s exciting when the passion to blog revs up again, isn’t it? I have been blogging since 2006, but blogging about the MBIP always perks me up when I feel like abandoning the whole thing.

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  10. Whatever I read has to spark something within me. It can be hate, love, or anything in between but I have to feel something. If I can relate to the characters that’s a plus. If the writing is beautiful then even better. If I turn that last page and the story and characters stay with me, then that is basically all I want in a book. Easy, right?

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    1. I agree with every characteristic you said here, especially the power of some/any emotion! There are some books I read twenty (or more) years ago which I’ll never forget, and some from two weeks ago that I can barely remember. How I felt after closing the cover is one of the keys to its power.

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  11. Books without any plot tend to be a struggle for me, too. I know Stephen King, an author I don’t really respect deeply, as said such a thing, and someone else, too ( whom I can’t remember right now)? But, we can’t forget Story. (Capitalization is intentional.)

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