By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Decades back, as I sat in the bleachers of a Los Angeles municipal park watching yet another interminable T-ball game, a fellow parent, a father who seemed much more interested in the comings and goings of the game, asked me if I had a ”pick” in the upcoming World Series. I had no knowledge of the upcoming Series — this must have been late September — but not wanting to seem less than interested, I politely returned the question, “How ’bout you?”
“No, I can’t say that I care for either the Twins or the Cards — probably go for the Cards ... but I just love this time of year, how the weather gets, the smell of hot dogs, and can’t imagine walking around without my ear glued to a transistor radio.”
I was reminded of this exchange the other day when the Booker Prize nominees were presented. “It’s always hot when the Bookers are announced,” was the first thought, followed by an amalgam of musings: “I wonder if I’ve heard of any of the authors?” or, “Why won’t they include Americans?” 0r, “Who’ll jack up the price on the first reprinting?” and, “How many of them are unavailable?” Questions of substance and merit are trumped by commercial concerns.
The “Booker,” nickname for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is a premier literary award given each year to the writer of the “best original full-length novel.” The books must be written in English, and their authors must be members of either the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. It differs, of course, from a prize like the Nobel in as much as it concerns itself not with a body of work, but with a specific book published within a specific time. Winners from the past include a fair number of authors who seem to have produced one book of merit, and then have faded from the literary scene. The meteoric effect.
The judging is done by a panel — chosen by committee — that generally includes an author, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller and a librarian. This year’s committee stretched the rules in picking the judges (they usually do) by including a member of the U.K. Parliament (Michael Portillo), a critic (Alex Clark), a novelist (Louise Doughty), an actor, a comedian, a BBC contributor and — get this — a cartographer (Hardeep Singh Kohli). With the Bookers, eclecticism is the rule.
There are discrete and subtle ways in which the entire Booker process resembles the baseball pennant race. During the spring and early summer, contenders for the prize vie for the attention and prominence in this admittedly tiny market. (In one charming press release for the “Best of the Booker,” the 7,800 votes cast were described as “flooding in from across the world.”) Salman Rushdie is the “Yankees” of the Bookers, a literary juggernaut, perennially nominated and often winning, including the aforementioned “Best” with his novel Midnight’s Children. Are there Dodgers and Red Sox in this race? Of course there are. Consider that Ian McEwan, Roddy Doyle, Margaret Atwood, Barry Unsworth and Anita Brookner are frequent nominees. And while there are always recognizable names on any Booker list, there are just as predictably unknown and first-time authors. This year’s long list boasts of five previously unpublished writers.
Part of the marketing genius of the prize is to announce two lists: a “long list” that generally consists of a dozen titles (this year’s “dozen” consists of 13), followed over a month later by a “shortlist” of five or six titles. It is this winnowing process, not unlike the playoffs that precede the World Series, that creates the interest and anticipation that mark the final award. 2008’s shortlist will be announced on September 9, and the winner of the grand prize will be honored at a ceremony on October 14. (Nota bene: Both dates are Tuesdays.)
And as with any good pennant race and subsequent World Series, there is a betting line announced by two competing oddsmakers in London. This year, Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence was Ladbroke’s favorite at 4-to-1, while William Hill’s betting line placed Rushdie in the second slot, also at 4-to-1, behind Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the first position at 3-to-1. Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress was originally the longest of the long shots at 20-to-1, but has been steadily moving up in the standings. It’s impossible to know how these odds are set. A known author is obviously an advantage, but the calculus in determining those odds must take into account a certain amount of perversity and presumption. These judges, after all, are literary critics. What enters into their decisions? Pedigree? Preliminary workouts? Post positions? Final weigh-in?