You are here

The longlist and the problem of choice

The longlist and the problem of choice

Usually, early reaction to the announcement of The Booker Prize longlist has a degree of consistency and zeros in on one particular aspect of the list. The 2020 iteration, however, is proving rather different. Early comment in the press and media suggests there are four main areas of outstanding interest, it seems: Hilary Mantel and the possibility of a third Booker Prize win; the unusually high number of women writers on the list (nine); the unusually high number of debutants (eight); and the number of Americans or part-Americans on the list (nine). Add in too, the localised areas of interest such as the number of African writers, Irish writers, Indian writers and so on, and it is clear that this year commentators are spoilt for choice.

The week following the announcement always has a slightly phony war feel to it since most readers won’t have had a chance yet to delve into the books properly – a trait exacerbated this year by all those debuts. Over the coming weeks more nuanced reactions will start to appear as critics and readers begin to see why Margaret Busby and her fellow judges plumped for this group of 13 novels.

The longlist also brought to the fore a question that had been bubbling a way for a while: why are women now dominating the literary landscape? The question was put differently in the Times in a piece wondering where the contemporary equivalents of the Amis-Barnes-Ishiguro-Rushdie-McEwan axis has gone but elsewhere answers were sought. As one writer noted, “Women make up about 80 per cent of those who buy novels – it follows, then, that it is perhaps likely that women like buying books written by women.” The democratisation and feminisation of publishing, the mainstream nature of modern feminism, and a greater acceptance of the idea of the woman writer being a “writer” rather than belonging to the genre of women’s fiction, were all advanced as reasons. Needless to say, The Booker Prizes have been gender blind for years, as nine female Booker Prize winners since 2000 attests.

The day before the longlist was announced, Martin Doyle, writing in the Irish Times, was brave enough – or foolhardy enough – to put his head above the parapet and suggest what the list might look like. As it happens, given the vast number of novels that might have been submitted, he didn’t do too badly. Naturally he favoured Irish writers but although Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry and Ireland-domiciled David Mitchell didn’t make the cut he called Colum McCann’s inclusion correctly (Apeirogon). He also got Hilary Mantel and Anne Tyler right. Other pundits on the paper thought that the presence of the classicist Emily Wilson and the thriller grand homme Lee Child among the judges would mean the appearance of historical fiction and, well, thrillers. There are no thrillers, at least in the accepted sense, and historical fiction is an ever-present – after all, anything set more than, say, 50 years ago, is historical. Still, hats off for the predictions and confirmation that unpredictability is a Booker Prize leitmotif

Kazuo Ishiguro, Booker winner and subsequently Nobel laureate, has just done a nice bit of business. His latest novel, Klara and the Sun, is not due out until March 2021 but the film rights, or what’s known as a “pre-empt”, have already been snapped up. How much of the manuscript can the bidders, Sony and 3000 Pictures, have seen, one wonders? Faber, who will publish the book, have released scanty details so far other than this brief synopsis: “The novel tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.” It certainly sounds intriguing but enough to base an entire film on? Of course, films of Ishiguro’s novels have won Oscars (The Remains of the Day) and plaudits (Never Let Me Go) so the filmmakers have every reason to spend their money with confidence.