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?
Nevertheless, the reported wagering is probably the most entertaining aspect of the prize. It certainly enlivens the backrooms at bookstores. Further, the Booker Prize is no stranger to the underdog winner, emerging from nowhere to take home the prize. This year’s list is already full of surprises.
Tom Rob Smith’s novel, Child 44, seems to be the most controversial book on the long list thus far. On one hand, the novel is a straightforward police procedural replete with chases, near misses and improbable coincidences (all explained at the conclusion); on the other hand, it’s a gripping and horrifying picture of the last days of the Stalin/Beria Great Terror of the early 1950s. Does such a book have a place in the august world of the Bookers? The argument rages on the many blogs and Web sites that cover the prize.
There are even two novels that hadn’t been published at the time of the announcement: John Berger’s From A to X and Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress. (Judges pick from a pool of submitted entries and a smaller group of “requested books.”) Berger is certainly a known quantity whose literary eminence is a given; Arnold’s novel, on the other hand, is one of the first-timers, a fact that must and does give grist to the gossip mills. (Try to imagine the possible scenario in which a first-time author, whose work has not been seen by the public but only by an agent, editor and spouse is promoted for this prize.)
Finally, there are the passed-over authors. This year’s major snub seems to belong to Peter Carey, who has twice won the prize, and whose new book, His Illegal Self, has garnered the sort of review attention that begs Booker consideration. Still others have complained that James Kelman, who won the prize for his novel How Late It Was, How Late, should have been long-listed for his recently published Kieron Smith, Boy.
That said, the Booker is unique in its refusal to conform to accepted norms, and true to its usual course in discovering and promoting unknown or unsung talents. It’s also shamelessly insular, insultingly elitist and wonderfully fresh. Many long-shot lovers and inexhaustible readers have lavished much praise on both Amitav Ghosh’s historical novel, Sea of Poppies, and The Lost Dog by Sri Lankan–born Australian Michelle de Kretser. After all, A.S. Byatt (1990 Booker Prize winner for Possession) called de Kretser’s book “the best novel I have read for a long time.” From someone like A.S. Byatt, an occasionally unforgiving and always tough critic, that’s far from faint praise.
As for myself, I'm in something of a quandary. I loved the wildly wacky and hilarious political satire of A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, and equally Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, with its own brand of social satire. In many ways, these two books are borderline caricatures of Booker Prize–winning novels, even if neither features a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. But if I were a betting man (completely appropriate in this case), I would be hard-put to wager against Netherland by O’Neill. The modern immigrant experience has become one of contemporary literature's most common subjects, and O’Neill's treatment, in its singularity and unique specificity, adds a wonderful dimension to its multiple stories. I think Netherland is a book with legs.
Still, common wisdom dictates that you ought never bet against the Yankees in the Series.
For 24 years, Doug Dutton owned and operated Dutton’s Brentwood Books.
THE WHITE TIGER | By ARAVIND ADIGA | The Free Press | 336 pages | $24
GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS | By GAYNOR ARNOLD | Tindal Street | 512 pages | $22 softcover
THE SECRET SCRIPTURE | By SEBASTIAN BARRY | Viking Press | 304 pages | $25
FROM A TO X | By John Berger | Verso | 224 pages | $23
THE LOST DOG | By Michelle de Kretser | Little, Brown and Company | 336 pages | $25
SEA OF POPPIES | By Amitav Ghosh | FSG | 528 pages | $26
THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS | By Linda Grant | Virgo | 293 pages | $24
A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES | By Mohammed Hanif | Alfred Knopf | 336 pages | $24
THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY | By Philip Hensher | Alfred A. Knopf | 512 pages | $28
NETHERLAND | By Joseph O’Neill | Pantheon | 272 pages | $24
THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE | Salman Rushdie | Random House | 368 pages | $26
CHILD 44 | Tom Rob Smith | Grand Central Publishing | 448 pages | $25
A FRACTION OF THE WHOLE | Steve Toltz | Spiegel & Grau | 544 pages | $25
Note: Not all titles are available yet. Publication dates are subject to the nomination process. Some dates will likely change after the “shortlist” is announced. Prices are also subject to change, and softcover and hardcover schedules are modified on occasion, to meet the expected demand for winning titles.