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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump