The 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The more astute among my readers (that’s both of you: hi mum!) may have noticed that the past four novels I’ve written about (One, Two, Three, Four), all have something in common.  No, they weren’t written by Katie Price under the assumed pen-names of Tom McCarthy and Andrea Levy*; nor were they rescued from imminent pulping by an action-hero Judy Finnegan** (Mr and Mrs Madeley, anyone?).  The unifying factor is: they’ve all been longlisted (is that a verb??) for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

 “What a coincidence!”, I hear you cry; yet be not so amazed, for the action was deliberate.  I’ve set myself the daunting, un-called for and ostensibly pointless task of reading the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist before the winner is announced on October 12th.  Return here on October the 11th to read my final thoughts on the nominees, as well as my pre-award show gossip and predictions.  Expect it to be an immoderate furore of well-meaning platitudes and civilised propriety.  Unless Peter Carey arrives at the ceremony drunk and naked, tearing pages out  of Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal and throwing them into the air like so much literary confetti as he declares himself the King of Booker, wearing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas as a crown.  Don’t look at me that way! It’s possible…Stranger things have happened…


The Man Booker Prize, along with the Pulitzer and the Nobel, forms part of the ‘big three’ of literary awards.  It’s a single, annual prize awarded to a full-length novel, in English, written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth (I believe Irish authors are eligible as well).  Despite the patriarchal impression given by its title, both men and women are permitted to enter.  The prefix ‘Man’ is a rider added in 2002 when the Man investment group began to sponsor the prize.

Publishers may enter two novels from their imprint for consideration each year, and books by previous winners are automatically considered.  Judges also reserve the right to ‘call in’ novels which they personally believe are attention-worthy, whether their publishers have entered them into the competition or not.  This year’s most talked-about ‘call in’ is Room by Emma Donoghue, which was requested by the judges before it had even been published; such was the novel’s pre-release hype.

 This year’s booker prize, however, has already become the subject of controversy (that is, if you can call the petty exchanges of bibliophilic dorks ‘controversial’).  The literary press has spent more time discussing what hasn’t been nominated than what has.  And it does strike me as odd that the brilliant Solar by Ian McEwan has been looked-over (surely it couldn’t have been over-looked?) and rejected by the selection committee.  Similarly, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman didn’t make the cut; neither did The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.  All three are wonderful, accomplished novels; superior, in my opinion, to some of the nominees I’ve thus far encountered.

Perhaps you can infer more from the judges’ omissions than from their inclusions?  These three rejected novels are loaded with risqué, contentious subject matter (global warming, atheism, trans-gender), and it would be easy to accuse the judges of ‘playing it safe’ with their nominations: are they afraid to give the award to a novel that might see them accused of having some kind of agenda? 

Unfortunately for the judges, excluding a book from the longlist is just as much a loaded act of volition as including one.  Maybe they’re deliberately courting controversy by disregarding the more acclaimed books, in a bid to reverse the waning public interest of recent years.  Maybe they’re afraid that nominating Pullman will see them accused of committing to an atheist point of view?  Facile as such concerns may be. 

My greatest fear, however, is that none of these explanations is the correct one; maybe the judges are such terrible arbiters of literary taste that they genuinely  believe Trespass  by Rose Tremain is better than Solar by Ian McEwan.  In which case, they have my pity; subjective as my argument may be.

On the topic of ideal nominations, I would also like to have seen Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds long-listed.  I see no reason why science-fiction should be so disregarded by the Booker judges.  Perhaps giving the nod to a sci-fi novel may challenge the established notion that science-fiction is an esoteric and clichéd genre that lacks depth and literary significance.  Terminal World is insightful, original and very accomplished, and its nomination would only have been a force for good, I feel.


Finally, I’d like to make some notes about why I’m doing this.  I’ve always been curious about literary awards.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t let the judges of such prizes dictate to me my taste in books; but I’m intrigued by the influence such people seem to have over the reading public.  It’s easy to rail against institutions like the Booker prize and accuse such awards of being reductive and popularist.  Yet as I perpetually fail to pin-down and understand my own taste in books, maybe I’ll be helped by gauging the responses of other people: looking outward rather than inwards, for once.

 Last year’s winner Wolf Hall enjoyed a frenzied rise in sales and popular attention once it won, and surely it can only be a good thing that Hilary Mantel’s masterwork finally got the attention it deserves, after spending so many months bothering the lower-regions of the bestsellers list.

I’m also intrigued by all the conspiracy theories that surround the award.  It’s even been suggested by the conservative right of the literary world that, in recent years, the amount of ‘minority’ fiction (gay writing, black writing, Afghan writing etc) nominated and awarded the prize is massively disproportionate to the out-put and quality of the niche that produces it, and that a miss-guided agenda of political correctness is fuelling the engines of the judges.  I’ve not read widely enough to make any comment on this, but it interests me nonetheless.

So, I thought that the only way to make an informed and balanced judgement on the Booker prize would be to do exactly what the judges are doing: read every novel on the longlist and decide for myself which is ‘best’.  I’ve already taken issue with the omission of some of my favourite books of the year, and perhaps my frustration at this will be sated by the process of reading the other nominees.  Also, I like a challenge and it’s nice to have some direction to my reading, for once.


It’s also going to be difficult.  Not least because my reading technique is that of subvocalisation; by which I mean that when I read, I imagine the full sound and spacing of words, correct to grammar and rhythm.  I can’t help it; it’s how I’ve always read.  I read in my imagination at the same speed I would read aloud to an audience; hence, for me, books are broadcast in ‘real time’, as it were.

What I’m trying to say is: I’m a slow reader.  Sub-vocal, internalised reading has its advantages: apparently it’s more conducive to analysis and understanding, it’s just damn slow.

But thus far, I’m on target to finish just before the award is announced.  I don’t want to jinx my mission, but I should be successful; pending any major life-changes or disruptive incidents. 

I hope that you enjoy (and have enjoyed) my rolling book-by-book reviews of the nominees. As always, comments and criticism are welcome.  Many thanks for reading.


*It was, at one point, rumoured that Katie Price’s latest ‘novel’ was being considered for nomination; even though her books are actually written by somebody called Rebecca Farnworth.  Thankfully, this rumour turned out to be un-founded.  I may have to check my sources, but isn’t Jordan winning the Booker prize one of the harbingers of the apocalypse?

**After being named ‘the most powerful people in publishing’ by various sources in recent years, it is constantly rumoured that Richard and Judy are going to become judges of the booker prize.  Apparently, it’s only a matter of time.  God help us.  This, of course, would only fuel the miss-guided notion that quantity of sales is equal to quality of product. Which it isn’t – otherwise more people would be talking about ‘The Wire’ and fewer people would talk about ‘Glee’.

Solar – Ian McEwan

“Here’s the good news.  The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change.  Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising.  There’s drought in the Amazonian rainforest.  Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost.  Two years ago we lost forty percent of the Arctic summer ice.  Now the eastern Antarctic is going.  The future has arrived.  It’s a catastrophe. Relax.”

Michael Beard is a physicist, ambassador, liar, self-congratulatory womaniser, thief and… fictional character.  McEwan’s newest protagonist is a difficult, immoral slob and a somewhat complicated literary creation.  A Nobel Prize winning scientist whose best years are behind him, Beard is a climate change sceptic who begrudgingly accepts a position at a new government-funded centre for global warming research.  When Beard realises that he can pass a dead man’s invention off as his own, his public views on climate change take a not-at-all-surprising U-turn, and he tries to secure his fame and fortune as a global warming capitalist.

But don’t be fooled; Solar isn’t a book about global warming per se – it offers no preachy moral positions or scientific posturing.  In fact, everything about the book is refreshingly straight-edge; the text gives no sympathies or judgements and doesn’t fall down on either side of the climate change debate.  What’s more is that Solar is strikingly funny.  My opinion of Ian McEwan has always been that he just doesn’t ‘do’ comedy, yet I found myself surprised by the wit, self-deprecation and satire that run rampant through these pages.  Solar is a true comic novel.

The writing is reliably brilliant (this is by no means a back-handed compliment; the psychological realism is comfortingly familiar and McEwan’s easy turn-of-phrase is as vibrant as ever- you know you’re in safe hands with the prose). It’s text-book McEwan; long compound-complex sentences are often followed by staccato, single-clause efforts as the writer drives home his metaphors and asides.  Yet McEwan isn’t an omniscient narrator; Solar belongs to Michael Beard.  The prose is framed through ‘free indirect discourse’; a narratorial technique by which the novel is posited in the third-person singular, but is told in such a way as Beard might himself tell the story.

However, this narrative style belays some unfortunate failings in the novel: Beard is the only well-developed character. Melissa, one of Beard’s many sexual distractions, is a beaming cliché of joyous new motherhood; whereas Tarpin, the lover of Beard’s ex-wife, has all the depth of a long-abandoned bird bath.

What we are left with, then, is an exercise in character study.  It is down to the reader, as jury and judge, to declare the moral outcome of the novel.  There are valid arguments to both praise and loathe Michael Beard; he’s dedicating his life to clean energy technology and he genuinely wants to further the study and cause of science.  Conversely; he’s adulterous, quick to anger and self-serving.

 There is no objective way to label or define this work – it can be described as a  pathos-riddled story of tragic self-destruction just as easily as it can be called a jovial comedy – a ribald satire on events that currently grip the public imagination.  And, for the fence-sitters amongst you, it can be both of these things at once.  What I’m saying is that McEwan has crafted a masterwork of comic ambiguity – an impressive literary feat.

Now, I don’t want to be accused of recording an open verdict when it comes to a novel such as Solar, a book that can be read  in so many different ways; so I’ll conclude this hearing with my own judgement of Michael Beard.  I think he’s a despicable character; every moral and professional decision he makes is the complete opposite of what I’d do in the same situation.  Many commentators describe him as ‘self-deluding’, but I couldn’t disagree more with this appraisal.  Beard is entirely self-aware; in fact, part of what makes his story so funny is the constant self-analysis of his physique, health, position in society and emotional relationships.  Beard’s only concern is his own success and he will abandon friends, lie and manipulate others to achieve it.

But despite all of his short-comings, I thoroughly enjoyed Beard’s story; his loathsome personality and immoral emotional positions make for fascinating reading – he’s an intelligently conceived and complex character.  However, the success of Solar, more so than many other novels, really is a matter of personal judgement, and whether or not Michel Beard is despicable or delightful is entirely up to you…