That annual literary freakshow, the Man Booker Prize, has resumed in earnest with the publication of the ‘long list’ of potential winners for the big prize announced in October. London bookies will now trumpet the odds of each candidate, and tepid discussions will spring up in the leafier groves of the Internet. In general, the book-chat world will take the opportunity to feel good about itself – it so rarely moves into the news headlines, and the prize itself, despite having been given to some extremely redolent pieces of poop in the past, retains an undeniable intellectual cache.

But that kind of unusual spotlight can have a pernicious negative side-effect, as anybody who’s ever felt it can attest: if you like the feeling, you can find yourself courting it. It’s perfectly natural to revel in the world’s attention if it should happen to turn your way while you’re in the course of doing what thrills your heart. But if you seek the world’s attention, you are a foul creature, lost, as inherently false as Norma Desmond now ready for her close-up.

Such is the fate that’s befallen the Man Booker Prize, and we can only hope it’s temporary. This is supposed to be an award for “the best novel in the opinion of the judges,” according to the incredibly affable Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation. There’s a very pleasing simplicity to that standard, but it’s a lie.

The new longlist is thirteen titles long. Here they are:

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Harvest by Jim Crace

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

The Kills by Richard House

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelsohn

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Without even talking about the literary merits of the books involved, we can tell right away that literary merits weren’t the governing criterion: fear was. See how you tell? Yes: the gender split. Quite apart from the longlist’s racial or geographical distribution, half the titles (plus a gallant extra one) are by women. Not three or four, and not eight or nine – neatly half.

It’s by such craven little capitulations (Trewin and his colleagues imagined shrill headlines – easy enough to do, since everyone reading this right now can also easily nyrb tocimagine them; perhaps they had nightmares of hectoring, clueless graphics taking meme-flight on Facebook and Twitter) that culpability is avoided – and credibility is lost. Because it’s almost impossible to arrive at such an even gender distribution (or anything distribution, for that matter) by random chance. Given the weird vagaries of contract deadlines and teaching workloads and publicity demands, greater skews (or even, very rarely, unanimous ones) are to be expected; an impeccably even split can only ever be the product of conscious design. If the Booker committee had been given their tranche of manuscripts scrubbed clean of all author names, there’s not one chance in a billion the list would have looked like this.

Instead, they sat around a table (or their various computers) and sorted possible candidates on the basis not of the literary quality of each book but on the ability of each author to bring a fetus to term. This year’s judges will be presented with a neat little lineup of books from which to choose the recipient of one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world – but the lineup they’re being handed is a political one, not a literary one. And such is the damnable ease with which so many of our current female literary pundits toss around terms like “rape culture” that not one critic will condemn that switch, much less point out that when a literary prize starts judging anything other than literary quality it adulterates both prizes and literature.

As it happens, this is an exceptionally strong longlist – one of the strongest in years. I’ve read nine of the thirteen: Tash Aw, NoViolet Bulawayo, Eleanor Catton, Jim Crace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colum McCann, Ruth Ozeki, Donal Ryan, and Colm Toibin (so, since I know you counted, four women and five men). Of those nine, only the books by Tash Aw and Colum McCann were flatly bone-stupid (and even they seem like Tolstoy alongside Lydia Davis, so these things are somewhat relative). Jhumpa Lahiri and – to my amazement (and substantial crow-eating), Jim Crace – both wrote masterpieces, for instance, and Eleanor Catton’s book, though an odd choice for the Man Booker, is wonderfully intelligent, as is Colm Toibin’s short story. From my various spies I’ve heard nothing but good things about both The Kills and Almost English, and in the extremely unlikely chance that the award is not given to Colm Toibin, Donal Ryan is my personal pick to take it.

A strong field, then – but it doesn’t matter, since the strength of the field wasn’t the governing rule here. The actual quality of the prose involved is almost a kind of accident; the real point is shamefully, obviously otherwise.

So now we wait until the autumn, to see who the Man Booker Fairness Calculation goes to.

  • Rohan

    Something’s odd about your logic here. On the one hand, you call it “an exceptionally strong list — one of the strongest in years,” while on the other you say that the judges did not choose the list based on the literary qualities of the books. I really don’t see how you can conclude that “the strength of the field wasn’t the governing rule here” just because a good half of the list is made up of women writers.

  • Steve Donoghue

    The ‘good half’ makes the conclusion inescapable! If you walked into the pantry and found your white and colors sorted neatly in stacks, you certainly wouldn’t think they fell that way out of the laundry. The list ended up being strong, yes, but only as a mere accidental by-product; the main point is that the selection committee went into the whole process counting genders, not masterpieces. Who knows what masterpieces they excluded from the judges’ consideration because they said, “Ooops, no – can’t take that one – we already have our quota of men”? That kind of calculation might save the committee from controversy, but it also excludes their award from any real literary merit, since the fix was in long beforehand.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue