The MAN Booker Prize, the premier literary award, carries ‘a curious, undeniable power’ according to Editorial Director Lee Brackstone. It brings expectation, anxiety, relief and a sense of (in)justice. It’s a case of overcoming hurdles – the more fences you clear, the more you can relax.
I am now into my second decade of acquiring fiction for Faber. There have been some successes, and many still dearly (but painfully) remembered disappointments. One constant marks each year that has passed in my acquiring life: the announcement of the MAN Booker Prize shortlist in early September. The French mark this autumnal shift in the publishing calendar with an elegant but sometimes overwhelming selection of novels curated by publishers themselves; in Britain and the Commonwealth, by contrast, the focus tightens on a usually eclectic selection of half a dozen novels.
For an editor who specialises in fiction – be it the discovery of new talent or the good husbandry of the established guard – the MAN Booker Prize carries a curious, undeniable power. Its currents run with occult forces and energies. Sometimes these prove generous, forgiving, embracing: in my case when DBC Pierre won in 2003 as perhaps the biggest underdog in over four decades. In other years, the waters run with the seeming chaotic will and malignity of rapids; sweeping hopes and dreams of reputations re-made or forged before them with disregard. The announcement of the MAN Booker longlist, however much publishers, critics, authors and mischievous naysayers try to deny it, is the first relevant public staging post by which the year’s literary fiction will be judged.
The 2012 list feels refreshingly daring and literary, full of voice-driven novels with curiously overlapping Modernist/Absurdist agendas. The few books I have read (Will Self, Deborah Levy, Ned Beauman) are brave literary selections. I know Nicola Barker, on the evidence of a robust, remarkably coherent and uncompromising body of work, must be an equally stimulating choice. Being an editor, with books ‘in the running’ for the prize on the day the longlist is announced, is not a pleasant experience; being an editor with books ‘in the running’ for the prize on the day the shortlist is announced is significantly worse. The relief longlist ‘recognition’ brings has long since transformed into hope the next fence will be cleared; that your horse will not be one of the fallers. Many editors (and I am one of them) adopt a devil-may-care attitude but this conflicts with the reality not far beneath the surface.
The MAN Booker and its various stages of elimination and affirmation has, over the decades, represented vindication for literary editors and their slender hopes that sometimes obscure titles may find readers and the million-plus-selling-success of The Life of Pi, or Never Let Me Go, which let’s not forget, didn’t even win the Booker. The prize represents one of the few, if not only, times in the literary calendar year that a pursuit dearly held by an ever-dwindling constituency (that is, the reading of literary fiction) hits mainstream culture in a truly newsworthy way. Let’s face it: we don’t have much to go on. Hence the seemingly endless and usually pointless chatter around the prize amongst the few thousand people in Britain on whom it has a direct impact: a select group of writers, agents, publishers, agents, booksellers, and to a lesser extent, critics. The shortlist is announced on 11 September and my sense of vertigo on that day will feel very much like the day 20 years ago when I walked through a North Yorkshire market town to collect my A Level results. I spent the rest of that day in the pub, celebrating. Progress for Michael Frayn or Jeet Thayil (the Faber contenders) may just drive me to an end of day pint or three. Only of course this time, in the Groucho not The Rose Inn.