Man Booker shortlist: big books, big disappointments

Man Booker selection pales in comparison to international stablemate - this is where the titles of real quality can be found, lost in translation as it were

Man Booker 2016: Madeleine Thien’s  Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the exception rather than the rule. Photograph: PA

Man Booker 2016: Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the exception rather than the rule. Photograph: PA

 

It is a fact, two words appear to dominate literary prize shortlist assessments these days; “big”, as in big name, and “indie”, as in independent publisher. In one swoop, often in the same paragraph we have big name authors and small independent publishers. It is difficult to decide which is bigger – there’s that word again, if in variation – big name or independent.

As for the big name or established literary reputation; whether we like it or not a good writer – or that should read a writer who has already written one or several good books – does not always write a good book; a famous writer can also write a turkey which will be published on the basis of reputation.

As many writers know it can be very difficult to get a good first novel published; it is often very easy – too easy – to have a second, not-too-good novel published. Why? Because the market dictates – a name once established is easy currency. And the major publishing conglomerates like a safe bet.

Literary prizes, such as the Man Booker, should really be about acknowledging outstanding works, regardless of the author’s fame and the size of their publishers.

The “big names” on the Man Booker longlist – J.M. Coetzee and A.L. Kennedy, Elizabeth Strout and David Means – all fell away leaving the reinvigorated Deborah Levy as the veteran on the shortlist. Interestingly, when Levy re-emerged from a 15-year break from writing, she was initially published by a small “indie”.

Madeleine Thien, a likely winner with her third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is greatly respected, if not as famous. This is about to change because, Thien, already regarded as a serious literary author, is about to acquire the patina of the Man Booker.

It is also interesting that of the six shortlisted titles, her novel of ideas based on history and memory is the one with the most in common with many of the outstanding novels in translation which have been winning an increasing audience.

It is also interesting to compare this year’s shortlist with that of the Man Booker International Prize, which was announced earlier this year. None of the shortlisted books, with the exception of Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, carry the weight of the social and political themes of international prize shortlisted books.

Paul Beatty in The Sellout attempts to satirise race, slavery, and racial segregation – but the narrative rarely goes beyond a heavy-handed ha-ha.

The international prize, which is open to books in translation, was won by Korean Han Kang with The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith. It is a scorching novel about one woman’s experience in a patriarchal society; it has a brutal eloquence not in evidence in five of this year’s Man Booker contenders.

The international prize shortlist also included China’s Yan Lianke with The Four Books, translated by Carlos Rojas. It is a major work. Also joining Lianke were Angola-born writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn and Austrian Robert Seethaler’s melancholic study of one man’s destiny, A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins – all very fine novels.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which looks to its author’s Malaysian-Chinese heritage, is the book on this shortlist which will endure. That said, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project will live long in the popular imagination, which is more than can be said of the other four to make the cut.

The irony is this: the shortlist for this year’s inaugural Man Booker International prize, drawing on novels available in translation, produced a far more compelling selection than has the Man Booker, which is open to all books in English.

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