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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide