Scroll down for Peter Stothard’s reviews of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist.
After last year’s Booker brouhaha about readable books that “zip along”, some may have seen the inclusion of Downton Abbey heart-throb Dan Stevens on the judges’ panel in 2012 as further evidence that the literary award is dumbing down.
Not this year’s chairman, Sir Peter Stothard. “Dan was reckoned as a very good student and scholar at Cambridge [where he read English],” demurs the donnish Stothard. “So although he’s also a very fine actor and has become extraordinarily famous, it doesn’t alter the fact that he’s a very learned man and a very astute critic.”
As editor of The Times Literary Supplement for almost a decade and The Times before that, and author of two acclaimed books with a third on the way, Sir Peter’s credentials are impeccable. And if that CV doesn’t silence the critics, his zero tolerance approach to zippy page-turners will.
“Storytelling is fine but it doesn’t require Man Booker judges to decide what people are going to enjoy taking on holiday and reading on the beach. What the Man Booker judges can do is apply traditional literary criticism and try to identify what people will still want to read in 20 years’ time. That was the aim of the Man Booker Prize and it’s important to hold on to it.”
“Books that are not immediately easy to read – the books that in the end will last, that reward you most – do increasingly require the Man Booker Prize judges to identify them so that people find the pleasure and reward of reading them. “
Traditional literary criticism is a dying discipline, Sir Peter fears. “There is a general trend – and it’s certainly very prevalent online – for replacing argued literary criticism that allows you to compare books, to put them in context, to analyse how they work. That kind of traditional criticism is very easily replaced by unargued opinion.”
Sir Peter may have reservations about shrill online blogs and five-starred book reviews, but he is a reluctant convert to the easily pocketable e-reader. It was perhaps inevitable given that Man Booker judges have a mere seven months to read 145 novels – enough to cause a landslide on any bedside table.
“I began the year as an e-book sceptic but I’ve come round. Not least because I discovered that the e-book discourages me from skipping over pages and encourages me to read more slowly – and we’re now re-reading the shortlisted books for the second, third and even fourth time before the prize-judging on 16 October.”
Unsurprisingly, Sir Peter has had little time to put his feet up in front of the TV lately – with one exception. “Since meeting Dan, I have watched Downton Abbey.” And? “And I was very pleased to see my friend doing his day job.”
BRING UP THE BODIES – Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
Mantel is one of the most extraordinary writers of our time and Bring Up the Bodies refines the extraordinary art of Wolf Hall. So in my view it’s a better book than Wolf Hall. No British writer has won the Man Booker twice. No woman has won it twice. In over 40 years only two people have won it twice (Peter Carey and JM Coetzee) – so it would be a fittingly extraordinary accolade.
NARCOPOLIS – Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)
Narcopolis is a book about Bombay. It charts the changes within a city and a society through opium: as opium users move to heroin and other kinds of chemical opiates, you see the effect that this has on the people who are using the drug and by extension on the city itself. It’s in some ways a very poetic book – Jeet is a poet – but it’s also a very potent and gritty book.
SWIMMING HOME – Deborah Levy (Faber & Faber)
This was initially published by subscription because Levy couldn’t find a publisher. It looks like a classic holiday villa story and in many ways it is. Yet it’s also a much more subtle and stark book than that suggests. Given the volume of books that are published, it’s remarkable that one of such power and quality effectively had to be self-published because no one else would take it.
UMBRELLA – Will Self (Bloomsbury)
Umbrella is a book that many people will certainly resist. When you invest some time in it and get beyond first appearances, it’s an extremely moving, emotional, gut-wrenching, in some ways quite traditional novel. But there’s no question that some people will find the initial entry into it difficult and that’s an issue that we’re obviously going to have to discuss.
THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS – Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)
Set during the Japanese occupation, this is the story of a garden created by the survivor of a prison camp in memorial of a victim. It’s sternly and slowly paced to match that subject, so if you are looking for a book that zips along, this is not for you – one judge likened its beauty to that of slowly crashing icebergs. He writes astonishing prose that renews the English language.
THE LIGHTHOUSE – Alison Moore (Salt)
Since the shortlist was announced, I’ve lost count of the people who’ve thanked me for choosing this book because they never would have found it otherwise. The Lighthouse has a simple enough plot: a middle-aged man goes on a walking holiday in Germany after the failure of his marriage. But it has a very bleak inner landscape and a tremendous atmosphere that stays with you.
The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced today and interviewed on tonight’s Newsnight (10:30pm, BBC2.)