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Weekly Roundup: Bookermania, hair and big books

Weekly Roundup: Bookermania, hair and big books

Philip Hensher (Man Booker shortlisted in 2008 and a judge in 2001) has given this year's prize longlist a careful examination in the Spectator. He notes that “One interesting feature is the judges’ willingness to stretch the qualification for the prize as far as possible.” By this he means the inclusion of Jhumpa Lahiri, NoViolet Bulawayo, Ruth Ozeki and Colum McCann, all of whom live in America (although all clearly conform to the prize's remit that the novels must be written in English by “a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland”). He was also fascinated by the language used in the novels with an historical setting, from Colum McCann's TransAtlantic which doesn't attempt period dialogue, to the haunting locations of Jim Crace's Harvest. Above all though, it's a very good year, he reckons – phew.

America, incidentally, will be hosting its own Man Booker festivities this autumn. The Morgan Library in New York is drawing on its capacious Man Booker holdings (some 4,000 items) for an exhibition called “Bookermania”, which opens on 13th September. It will feature copies of all the winning books plus manuscripts, letters and other archive material. The Book Patrol website reminded its American readers of the prize in a notable couple of lines: “England’s Man Booker Prize turned Possession into an instant best seller, propelled The English Patient and Life of Pi onto the screen, and made a star out of an advertising copywriter named Salman Rushdie.” That's one way of putting it.

One of this year's longlistees, Charlotte Mendelson, has revealed that her heroine is the 1978 Man Booker winner, Iris Murdoch. She has exalted status in Mendelson's eyes for reasons both literary and non literary. First there's the work and, above all, the intelligence (though “it isn't all brainy fantasising in Murdochland; there's wild swimming, appalling sandwiches, death, madness and sex”) but the real reason is that Murdoch “understood the world I came from – North Oxford, where cleverness, cluelessness, poor social skills and terrible haircuts were normal; her weirdos gave me hope”. For the record: Charlotte Mendelson has beautiful hair.

Will Self, one of last year’s Man Booker shortlisted authors with Umbrella, has recently described how he was stopped by the police while on a rambling holiday with his son because they suspected he might be a paedophile. It is the sort of personal horror story that might have been dreamed up by Self himself: a mash-up perhaps of Umbrella – which featured life in a mental asylum – and his 2004 short-story The Five-Swing Walk which featured a father walking his local parks with his son and wondering whether he should fake his own suicide. 

Two of this year's longlisted authors were mentioned in a recent piece about the return of big novels – Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries (832 pages) and Richard House's The Kills (1,002 pages). The writer suggested that big books offer spectacle rather than introspection, that they build the reader's confidence, and that they offer better value for money. Above all, the reader approaches a hefty volume with the hope/determination that  “It had better change us, make us different to how we were when we started – make us bigger, somehow, ourselves.” If they are good enough, short novels can do that too.