Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

Hilary Mantel and Will Self are the favourites.

The hour is here. At a press conference this morning, the final shortlist of the six novels vying for the 2012 Man Booker Prize was announced. They are:

Tan Twang Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)

Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

This year the judging panel is comprised of the actor, editor and columnist Dan Stevens; the historian and best-selling author Amanda Foreman and two academics: Bharat Tandon and Dinah Birch. It is chaired by Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Mantel is the bookies’ favourite to win with her sequel to Wolf Hall, which took the prize in 2009. Bring up the Bodies, the second in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is popular with readers and critics alike and seems to be a safe bet to receive the prize. Of course, the fact that she has already received the top honour once before, as well as being longlisted in 2005 for Beyond Black, may work against her. The odds, however, seem to suggest that many are confident she can pull it off again.

The inclusion of Will Self’s Umbrella – which the New Statesman’s reviewer referred to as a “complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern” - may be a nod to correcting the controversy that seemed to follow last year’s prize. When the 2011 selections were made public, the judging panel were criticised for pandering to populism. They admitted to rejecting “experimental” books, instead prioritising the readability of the novels above any other quality throughout the judging process. The chair of the 2011 judging panel, Stella Rimington, was quoted as saying that “we want people to buy and read these books, not buy and admire them.” Will Self, described by this year’s panel as a “radical of contemporary literature” and Umbrella, with its modernist echoes of Joyce and Eliot, may be the perfect way of signalling that the prize is ready to take itself seriously again, and is no longer afraid to include more conceptually challenging books.

Sir Peter said that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates. We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose - and in the visible confidence of the novel's place in forming our words and ideas.” This marks a significant departure from the explanations given last year, when Judge Chris Mullin prompted some raised eyebrows by declaring that he liked to choose books with storylines that ‘zip along’. In fact, a renewed interest in the fresh and innovative appears to mark out the shortlist this year - the list includes two first novels and three small independent publishers.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 16 October 2012, at a dinner at London’s Guildhall. The announcement of the winner will be televised by the BBC.   

Will Self in 2006. Photo: Getty Images.
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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition