Reading the Booker

By Katy Stoddard

In a former life I was a librarian at the Guardian, answering queries from journalists and, among other things, blogging historical content from the digital archive. In 2011 I wrote a blogpost about the history of the Booker Prize, the UK’s biggest prize for literature but also its most controversial.

2011 was the year the Booker was criticised for being too mainstream, as if a book cannot be ‘great literature’ and also a cracking read. Some even suggested setting up a new, ‘proper’ literary prize, though in the event the traditionalists prevailed and the prize was awarded to Julian Barnes, the only ‘proper’ author on the shortlist.

In a moment of ‘all I ever read is trash’ I decided to read all six, before the winner was announced – giving myself about three weeks to plough through some of the finest contemporary literature on offer. Not so much reading as inhaling words.

There were some really very good books that just missed out, despite the snobbish attitude of the establishment (Andrew Motion I’m looking at you) – Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, about a young boy caught up in gang warfare on a Peckham estate; Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, set in the jazz world of 1930s Berlin; and Snowdrops, about corruption and deceit in Putin’s Russia (‘snowdrop’ is the nickname for the bodies that turn up every year when the snow thaws).

Each of those stories has stuck with me. Maybe it was the intensity of reading a novel in two or three days, something I don’t normally allow myself, snatching chapters here and there on the bus or the train, disparate moments wedged between telly and Twitter. Maybe I’m just a mainstream reader and the literary heights of a normal Booker shortlist is beyond me.

I’ve tried to read the shortlist every year since, with varying degrees of success. I’ve only connected with a few – 2013 winner The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, set in the New Zealand gold rush, each chapter half as short again as the last. Will Self’s Umbrella, a dense 800-page novel with few paragraph breaks and no chapters, which sounds awful but was properly immersive. Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh’s tale of a disaffected teen in 1960s New England, the only 2016-nominated book I’ve read so far.

This year I’m five books in already, though the sheer scale of Paul Auster’s epic 4 3 2 1 meant I hadn’t read them all before the winner was announced. And I’ve properly enjoyed every book so far. Elmet and History of Wolves, by debut novelists Fiona Mozley and Emily Fridlund, have strong parallels, though the settings are very different – disconnected teenagers growing up on the fringes of society, a strong connection to nature, a sense of dread that builds as you read. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is very different, a contemporary, slightly fantastical parable of mass migration that brings the refugee crisis to life.

Auster’s 4 3 2 1 plays with the structure of the novel, telling four alternate versions of the life of New Jersey Jew Archie Ferguson that interweave against the backdrop of mid-century America. It’s a fascinating approach to storytelling, even if it is ever so long.

Ali Smith’s Autumn is a literary experiment, the first of four novels (one for each season) written as real-world events happen. At Brighton Festival this May, Smith said she suggested the concept to her publisher on a whim and was slightly dismayed when they leapt on it. It cuts across the decades, delving into the nature of love and connecting such apparently disparate subjects as female pop artist Pauline Boty and the Brexit vote. The second Seasonal novel, Winter, has just been published to rave reviews.

George Saunders’ winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo completes the list. Set in the limbo (the Buddhist ‘bardo’ state) between life and death, Saunders uses the demise of Lincoln’s son Willie at the height of the American civil war to ruminate on beliefs, false memory and attitudes to death itself. Peopled with brilliantly funny, often grotesque, characters, and told in part through contradictory quotes from historical accounts, Saunders’ novel is a worthy winner.

I don’t think library staff can suggest a purchase of novels for the university any more – all mine are borrowed from the Jubilee – but if anyone wants to correct me I would happily buy copies for the benefit of students and staff!

Some of them may even find their way onto reading lists. ). Maybe Lincoln in the Bardo will crop up on V1425 next spring? Of the 2011 batch, the only author to have earned that particular honour is winner Julian Barnes, which shows what I know.

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