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Football fame and the Man Booker

Football fame and the Man Booker

The Sally Rooney bandwagon keeps on rolling. The 2018 Man Booker Prize longlistee has just won the Costa Prize for fiction for Normal People, simultaneously becoming the youngest author ever to scoop that category. The Costa, an apples v kumquats prize, pits fiction against first novels, poetry, biographies and children’s books with the overall winner, announced at the end of the month, picking up £30,000. All this attention hasn’t turned Rooney’s head though. As she described in a recent interview: “There’s a frisson of weirdness of seeing your name mentioned and someone you don’t know talking about you. I have to discipline myself not to look at it, but obviously it’s on a very, very small scale – it’s not like you’re a Premier League football player.”


One of the Costa shortlisted novelists pipped by Rooney was the 1995 Man Booker winner Pat Barker (The Ghost Road). Her most recent fiction, The Silence of the Girls, is a spin-off from the Iliad set on the eve of the final assault on Troy and centred on, not the Greek heroes, but the women of the camp. Asked why there have been so many books recently inspired by the Homeric tradition, Barker suggests that it is something to do with the fleeting tenor of our times: “We’re bombarded with ephemera. One day a book is top of the bestseller list and six months later you struggle to remember its name,” she says. “These [classical] stories are thousands of years old. There is an appetite for things that have stood the test of time as our lives change so rapidly.”


The International Prize for Arabic Fiction has just revealed both its judges and its longlist. The prize, often referred to as the “Arabic Man Booker”, has the laudable aim of increasing awareness for fiction from a region where novels are not the default reading currency. As part of the reward, the winning book is guaranteed translation into English, and hence the chance to reach out into the wider world. This year saw 134 books from nine countries whittled down to a longlist of 16 by a panel of five judges chaired by Charafdin Majdolin, a Moroccan critic and academic, who carries the daunting job specification of being an expert in “Aesthetics, Verbal and Visual Narratives and Comparative Studies”. A shortlist of six will be announced on 5th February and the winner of the $50,000 prize will be revealed on 23rd April just before the start of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.


The Irish writer Brian (pronounced Breeann) Moore died 20 years ago, on January 11th, 1999. His star has waned somewhat since then but he deserves better. Moore’s quality was such that he was shortlisted three times for the then plain Booker Prize (for The Doctor’s Wife, 1976; The Colour of Blood, 1987; and Lies of Silence, 1990). Now, an interview from 1973 that was never published has surfaced. It is full of interesting observations – on experimental fiction, for example: “If I am to be moved by experimental writing, it has got to be magnificent, it’s got to be as virtuoso as Ulysses or as interesting as Borges. To my mind one cannot write truly experimental books unless they are masterpieces.” And on the nature of a novel’s characters: “We identify with ordinary people because, at heart, we or most of us believe that we are ordinary. Besides, we no longer live in an age of kings and heroes.” And the difference, debated so vigorously now, between literary and genre fiction: “The borderline between serious and escape fiction is that when you sit down to write serious fiction you don’t know how it will turn out; it can turn out to be a depressing book, a painful book, or even, if you’re lucky, a tragic book. . . it can fail, and most often it does fail and remains a painful failure. Escape fiction doesn’t fail because it knows its boundaries; it succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is entertaining millions of people by gratifying their fantasy. Its aim and end is making money. It has nothing to do with writing.” This sort of bracing clarity of thought is one reason why Moore’s novels deserve to be reread.