Man Booker shortlist hits, misses (and zero Australian content)

Since Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Australia’s representation on the most influential of Western literary prizes has been zilch.

Not one Australian novel has made the longlist, let alone the shortlist. 

Certainly, the competition has increased, since the prize opened to the United States. Last year and the year before, the winners were American – George Saunders for the resolutely unpopulist Lincoln in the Bardo, and Paul Beatty for the wickedly funny The Sellout.

Given that in 2015 the Man Booker went to Jamaican writer Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings, and before Flanagan it went to New Zealander, Eleanor Catton for the huge rambling The Luminaries, that makes six years since a UK writer has won the UK’s big prize. (It was the unique Hilary Mantel in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies.) 

Frankly, it’s not so much the lack of Australian names on the recent shortlists that is surprising: it’s that, for a number of years prior to Flanagan’s win, this country had so many books featuring in this furiously contested award. 

Between 2001, when Peter Carey won for The True History of the Kelly Gang, and 2014, when Flanagan was given the nod, Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Steve Toltz and Peter Carey, again, were on the shortlist (and JM Coetzee, if you like to include him in the Australian list). These are all very different writers, but there is something, I think, that makes them potentially of interest to judges: the books for which they were shortlisted are all very ambitious and big stories. Ambition is possibly what impresses most judges of literary awards; it’s something that most of us can identify without our own taste and reading preferences kicking in.

While prize-winning has been called a lottery by very distinguished prize-winning writers such as Flanagan and Julian Barnes, that isn’t quite fair. Judges do try to find selection criteria beyond “I like it a lot”, and even though judging the Man Booker must certainly carry with it the exhilarating feeling that you can have a powerful say in which books rise to the top of bestseller lists, I’ve no doubt they mostly approach the task with sincerity and honour. 

It doesn’t look like the kinds of novels exciting the judges of the Man Booker are being written or published in Australia. 

This year’s Man Booker longlist was praised for its scope: as well as a verse novel, it included a graphic novel (there’s a graphic novelist on the judging panel), and a thriller. The graphic novel, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, didn’t make the shortlist, announced this week. Neither did the thriller, Belinda Bauer’s Snap.  It’s still a beguiling list:

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room

Esi Edugyan: Washington Black

Daisy Johnson: Everything Under

Anna Burns: Milkman

Richard Powers: The Overstory

Robin Robertson: The Long Take

If you were a betting person, and were looking for a form guide, you’d have to say the best bet on this shortlist is Richard Powers, who, like George Saunders, is much admired by readers who like their fiction very detailed, nuanced, uncompromising and even demanding. The other talking point is how Daisy Johnson (below) is the “youngest ever shortlisted author”.

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Daisy Johnson’s ‘Everything Under’ is on this year’s nominee list

We do like to find reasons for what gets the nod: the shortlist has been noted as favouring shorter novels, as “reflecting dark times”, and as stretching the limits of what the novel can do.

It’s possibly panache that is what judges are impressed by. Robin Robertson’s verse novel, The Long Take, would defy the odds to win, but its subject matter – trauma in the aftermath of political violence – puts it front and centre of our era’s big issues. 

According to the chair of the judging panel, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, the common theme for all six novels is the “anatomy of pain”. It’s tough to say anything particularly useful in judging summaries, but Appiah resorted to praising all six as “miracles of stylistic invention” where “language takes centre stage”. It’s better than referring to “luminous prose” or some such flapdoodley cop-out that usually means a writer likes a nice metaphor and enjoys an adjective or two. I think he means these novels make every word matter, finding the felicitous combination of sound, sense and deep meaning that makes writing into literature. 

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Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’ has been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker Prize

Since the rise of the creative writing course and the demise of English departments, publishing has become a much more open space, where stories told by well-educated white men are no longer the benchmark. In Australia, there’s been a shift in who gets published, as publishers respond to the widening demand for books by younger women and people from non-Anglo backgrounds. In the past seven years, the Miles Franklin Award has been won six times by women, with AS Patric’s surprise win in 2016 for Black Rock White City the anomaly ; in the seven years prior, it was the opposite – six men and one woman (Alexis Wright for Carpentaria). 

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Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Mars Room’ is also on the Man Booker Prize shortlist this year

It’s not appropriate to compare the Man Booker and the Miles Franklin shortlist, given the huge discrepancy in what’s eligible for each, but it doesn’t look like the kinds of novels exciting the judges of the Man Booker are being written or published in Australia. 

This year’s shortlisted novels for the Miles Franklin, according to the judging panel chair, State Library of NSW librarian Richard Neville, “explore how Australians connect with their complex stories, with their emotional histories, and with the legacy of colonisation”. 

Again, it’s difficult to say anything useful when you’re trying to sum up a range of books, but Australian critical language does appear to be stuck in this ridiculous cliché that art “explores” rather than does. Announced last month, the winning book, Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, was praised for its wit and style: “Sentence-by-sentence, it is elegant, full of life and funny.” 

It is also ambitious – “dazzling” and “mesmerising”, even “intelligent” which you’d like to think is a given, but apparently not –  juxtaposing stories set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, with lots of things to say about memory and misunderstanding, and about the responsibility of writers towards the source of their fictions. 

Not dazzling enough to make the Man Booker longlist, however. 

Debates aside about quality and how judges choose, there is one strong and undeniable positive about both the Man Booker and our own Miles Franklin: the shortlist draws our attention to books we might otherwise not have noticed. With the demise of the reviewing pages – and along with that, the increasing distrust of critical writing that is in any way critical to the point where everything is dazzling and nothing is ordinary – it’s not easy to find out about new and interesting books. 

Which is why readers are grateful for literary awards.

The Man Booker Prize is announced October 16

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