October 17, 2011 by markstani
Unless you’ve been stranded in a Siberian dacha or cast adrift on the Victorian high seas, you won’t have missed the criticism of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist.
In some ways, it’s understandable. It doesn’t help when judges leak strange requirements like ‘readability’, nor when an eminently worthy quest to find the best book of the year is constrained by a bizarre publisher submission process.
That said, the way the so-called literary establishment has turned its venom on teh six books on the shortlist has bordered on the hysterical. Champions of heavyweights like Alan Hollingshurst and Salman Rushdie have screamed loudest. The Booker, by their omissions from the shortlist, is accused of ‘dumbing down’.
All of which is frankly bollocks. Any prize which changes its judging panel every year is bound to have good years and bad – or rather, years in which the majority of the shortlist appeals to a different demographic. It hardly justifies taking your ball home and re-shaping it into an unnecessary new Literature Prize.
What the heavy lit-crit lot seem to have a problem with is the sheer audacity of this year’s list. Debut authors and independent publishers abound. For the back-slapped and arse-licked literati, this adds up to something seriously amiss.
The misplaced, scattergun criticism is best exemplified by the disdain heaped upon AD Miller’s paean to modern Moscow, Snowdrops. It is alarming that some of those who are purported to possess such great lit-crit minds can write it off as some kind of one-dimensional pulp thriller, when anyone can see it’s more multi-layered than a babushka’s under-skirts: a brilliant evocation of Russia’s out-of-control capital city, as well as a sexy, gripping and entirely believable exploration of the nature of obsession.
I think Snowdrops deserves to win. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is another strong contender: a black, Coen Brothers-esque tale of two bloodthirsty brothers which turns the traditional Western inside-out.
Esi Eduygan’s Half Blood Blues is a worthy, surprising story of a black jazz band’s experiences in wartime Berlin and Paris; Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie is s rollicking high seas adventure which also superbly captures the essence of Victorian London; Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is perhaps the weakest of the lot, but there is still much to the said for his young narrator’s endearingly innocent description of gangland London in a story framed by the death of Damilola Taylor.
And then there’s Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending – a smart, slim, thoughtful musing on memory and how it alters with age, selectively being massaged to reinvent the past.
For now, it’s the critics of the Booker Prize who seem to have short memories. Too many years the Prize has been weighed down by dirges that tick all the boxes for technique but sadly lack on plot. This year’s shortlist is fun, bright and, well, readable. Above all, it’s a one-off: depending on your point of view, a glitch in the system or a welcome break. Either way, we should all just get over it.