With the completion of The Sense of An Ending, I’ve wrapped up my Booker Prize Challenge 2011 with more than a week to spare. Prediction time!
There are two different picks to make: which book deserves to win, and which book will actually win. The first is much simpler beacause it essentially means “which book did I like the most?” From worst to best, they were:
Pigeon English is the only one I outright disliked, although the top two are the only ones which I think are definitely worth reading. Jamrach’s Menagerie is by far the greatest: an exciting and evocative adventure story which eventually becomes a gripping and terrifying tale of a brutal ordeal. Carol Birch has penned a marvellous novel which is head and shoulders above its competitors,and she absolutely deserves the 2011 Booker prize.
But will she actually win it? Unfortunately, my personal opinions do not always set the standard the rest of the world follows, so there’s always the chance the jury may select something different. Predicting which book will actually win involves examining the jury itself – specifically the books it selected for the longlist and the shortlist, and public comments made by its members.
General agreement holds that this year’s longlist had some unusual selections, and even more unusual was which books made it to the shortlist. Snowdrops was a particularly suprising wild card, being a genre novel that doesn’t make apologies for itself and, while not a bad book at all, doesn’t deserve to win one of the world’s greatest annual literary awards. (Not because it’s a genre novel, but rather because it’s not a particularly amazing genre novel.) The Sisters Brothers and Half-Blood Blues are more “literary” than Snowdrops, but still unusual inclusions, given that they are unusual books. The jury’s decision to accept these books – and its decision to cut literary heavyweight Alan Hollinghurst – is quite telling. It’s backed up by statements from the panel, with Chris Mullen saying the books had to “zip along” and Stella Rimington saying “we were looking for enjoyable books.”
This set literary snobs all a-flutter because, as we all know, Literature Is Not Meant To Be Fun. I’ve talked in the past about my Venn Diagram theory of literature: that there are books with literary merit, and there are books that are fun and enjoyable to read, and that a deadly boring piece of literature which won critical acclaim is not really any better for you than the latest ghost-written Robert Ludlum thriller. There are plenty of books which are interesting and fun while still having literary merit, so why bother with the other types? I feel quite sorry for critics who have convinced themselves that “readability” and “enjoyment” are Bad Things, and somehow mutually exclusive to Real Literature.
So the shortlist selection and judges’ comments reveal that that Booker panel this year is largely in line with my own ways of thinking about literature. Or, in other words, I believe that Jamrach’s Menagerie is the book which both deserves to win and will win. It combines a 19th century boy’s adventure and a grisly ordeal of survival with a very poignant tale about brotherhood, friendship and sacrifice. It is one of the best books of the year and absolutely deserves to sit alongside previous great winners like Life of Pi and The English Patient.
(If this prediction is wrong I am going to have such a hissy fit.)