Eleanor Catton (C), author of 'The Luminaries', with the Duchess of Cornwall (L) and Robert Macfarlane (R), chair of judges after she won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for Fiction on October 15, 2013 in London, England. Photo: Getty Images
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Judging the Man Booker Prize: how I read 145 novels in seven months

As the Man Booker Prize announces its longlist of nominations, a judge from the 2012 edition explains the task facing the panel that has to whittle more than a hundred novels down to a single winner.

This year’s run-up to the naming of the Man Booker Prize winner has just begun, with the announcement of the 13 novels that make up the longlist. They will soon be dissected and analysed by readers and critics all over the world. For the first time, the prize has been open to writers of any nationality, as long as their work was originally in English and was published in the UK.

Four Americans feature in the list: Joshua Ferris, Siri Hustvedt, Karen Joy Fowler and Richard Powers. There’s an Australian (Richard Flanagan), an American/Irish writer (Joseph O'Neill), an Irish contender (Niall Williams), and six British authors (including Howard Jacobson, David Mitchell and Ali Smith). Three women appear on the list and ten men.

Judging any literary prize is tough, but the size of the task confronting the panel of the Man Booker Prize is enough to make anyone shiver. I was among the five judges in 2012, and the experience turned out to be one of the most demanding and exhilarating of my life. We read a total of 145 books – in about half a year. Most of them were put forward by their publishers, but a few were those we called in ourselves. It’s hard to believe, looking back, that we voluntarily added to our burdens, but we were crazily eager to include every serious contender. So, how was it done? Many people, understandably, assume that we just read part of the submissions, or divided the books between us.

In fact, there was no division, and no dodging. Each of the judges read the entire list and we all worked through them in the same order. Proof copies started to come in well before Christmas and the longlist was announced in late July, so we had seven months to complete the reading. Some short works could be dispatched quickly, which was just as well, but others refused to be rushed.

We had monthly meetings to share our verdicts, discussing each novel in turn. The panel had plenty of professional experience in reading quickly and carefully – and that made a difference. But mostly the work was done by abandoning much that we take for granted in day-to-day life – including, as I recall, any kind of social life or domestic responsibility (we were all blessed with patient and tolerant partners). Every spare moment, and some moments that were not really spare, was spent with heads buried in a book. We became obsessed, immersed in a world of fiction.

Brief to find the best
Our brief was simple. We were looking for the “best, eligible full-length novel in the opinion of the judges”, as the terms of entry stipulate. The prize is not given to an author on the basis of reputation or life-time achievement, but to the novel that in our collective judgement was the “best” to be published that year. We hung on to that fundamental point. It helped us to be clear about our priorities, and stiffened our resolve to set aside the work of distinguished writers, if we felt that novels by less familiar names had stronger claims. We were equally determined not to allow “opinion” to degenerate into whim, or personal predilection.

Our meetings were hugely enjoyable, but they were also intellectually rigorous. Our chair, Sir Peter Stothard, insisted that our choices must be backed by evidence and argument, founded on the reasoned analysis of the conceptual and stylistic strengths of the novels we were scrutinising. Perhaps our instincts as a panel were unusually academic, but the meetings often felt like the most testing kind of seminar, where no-one was allowed to get away with sloppy thinking. This was a powerful inducement to keep up the work rate. It would have been impossible to argue for or against any particular book if you hadn’t read it, didn’t have notes, hadn’t thought through your response.

The process of judgement was disciplined and methodical, but what lingers in my memory is the dizzying excitement of the reading. Encountering so much fiction in such a short space of time, most of it of high quality (there were few duds), was a strange and intoxicating experience. Even now, two years after my time as a judge, I can recall in precise detail passages and scenes from dozens of novels that didn’t make it onto the longlist, but had nevertheless exercised an iron grip on my imagination. It has become a cliché to note that fiction constantly defies prophecies of its imminent demise in a digital world, but reading those novels (some in hard copy, some on mobile devices) was a heady confirmation of the exuberance of the form.

Extending the scope of the prize to include writers of any national background means that American writers are now eligible, though publishers will not be entitled to submit more books under the new rules, so the number of novels on the judges’ list will not grow. Fiction is increasingly global in its origins and reach, and I welcome the change.

I doubt whether it will affect the essentials of the process – reaching the end of a chapter and noticing with dismay that it’s three in the morning; the lip-gnawing frustration of failing to persuade your fellow judges to admire a book that left you awestruck; the swell of satisfaction when a consensus is finally reached, and a winner emerges. For us, it was Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Bring up the Bodies. I’m looking forward to discovering what it will be in 2014.

Dinah Birch does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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