I have a love-hate relationship with the Man Booker literary prize. Admittedly the emphasis is mainly on the hate but I always care. In my former life as a literary blogger, I spent many paragraphs explaining why I am both fascinated and repelled by this literary prize. I shall try to keep it succinct this time. The Man Booker prize has come to symbolise an awfully conservative view of what constitutes 'good literary fiction': realist novels, novels set in the past, middle-class novels.. It was not always so, actually. In the mid-90s Scottish novelist James Kelman won with his "How Late It Was, How Late" which was written in a Scottish working-class dialect using a stream-of-consciousness mode. It promptly became The Worst Selling Booker Winner Ever and bookshops complained loudly. The Man Booker has been reliably "safe" since the Kelman win: Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Alan Hollinghurst and John Banville. They are all reliable, steady writers who will not cause a revolution in your head and will all make great dinner party fodder. Sure, there is always a talking point to all the books which is handy for the book group discussions, but the books are never scarily different. I am clearly not the only one who worries about what the Man Booker has become.
I actually really enjoy some of the winners and sometimes the short list throws up some interesting books: Keri Hulme's The Bone People, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, AS Byatt's Possession and The Children's Book, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Colm Toibin's The Master, and Tom McCarthy's C among others. But for every one of those books you also get Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (which blooming won) and Atonement, Julian Barnes' England, England, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Ali Smith's The Accidental, Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Emma Donoghue's Room. Bland literary chamber music in a world that could do with a symphony with blatant nerve.
Andrew Crumey, James Robertson, Alasdair Gray, China Mieville and Jonathan Coe have never been short-listed: too Scottish? too genre? too weird? too .. I don't know why Coe wasn't short-listed for his mainstream (and very wonderful) What a Carve Up! or The House of Sleep except maybe the novels were too angry? Too impolite?
But as you may have gathered, I read quite a few of the nominated books and this year I have read two of the long-listed books, Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child and Jane Roberts' The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Hollinghurst was curiously bland, stifled and aimless underneath the well-crafted prose. Roberts' book started out wonderfully defiant but quickly shrivelled into inconsistent, shrill nonsense. I think the failure of Roberts' book upset me more because I became genuinely interested by its first two chapters.
Something is adrift in contemporary British literature. I think there are genuinely talented authors writing wonderful, complex, daring works of fiction. Most of them work under the radar whilst the holy 1980s trinity of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis continue to gather newspaper inches. A lot of dross have come out of Creative writing programmes too (University of East Anglia, I am looking at you) and I often wonder whether British literature is slowly turning into English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh literature? Regardless, we live in interesting literary times. Too bad the most high-profile literary prize doesn't really seem to be interested.
Ah, I always miss my literary blog this time of year..