Now that the longlist for the Booker Prize has been announced two things will happen with grim, tortuous inevitability. Firstly, newspaper articles will appear comparing the sales of the 13 novels with Katie Price or Dan Brown’s latest paperback; secondly, possibly in the same article, someone will express surprise that a favourite (McEwan, Amis, Rushdie) didn’t make the cut. Both are as irritating as each other. The first is simply spurious and pointless – and something I've mentioned before – the second just as frustrating, for a number of reasons.
McEwan, Amis and Rushdie do not need the publicity to sell copies of their books, so why there seems to be a need to mention the ‘surprise’ of them not being on the list is beyond me. It is no shock to me that McEwan and Amis didn’t get further; this is a strong year and even their most fierce proponents must concede that these are books unlikely to unite a body of judges. The real story, for me at least, is the ones left behind. Those writers who don’t have the platform that these three writers have, but must have had high hopes of making it onto the list. It’s for them I really feel; I can’t imagine how galling it must be to think you’re in with a shout only to fall at the first hurdle.
Of course awards are imperfect; they are only the opinions of four disparate people, yet when it comes down to it, what greater barometer for the enthusiastic reader is the Booker list? Bitch, moan and piss about it all you like, that list gives a book a massive base to go at. Sales will inevitably increase; a writer’s profile will be already heightened. The problem is, however, if you don’t make the list. What happens then?
One of the books I tipped to make it on the list was The Canal by Lee Rourke. It felt to me like the kind of novel that the Booker prize was invented to recognise and champion. That it didn’t is disappointing, but not a disaster. It is a novel that will find its own audience – perhaps not in the mass-market, but an audience all the same. It’s more of an issue for established names, with huge publisher expectations, where a longlisting is realistically the only way to guarantee a return on the investment.
Gerard Woodward’s superb Nourishment is the kind of book I’m talking about. Deft, brilliant and astute, it is to be published slap bang in the middle of Booker season, which means it’s going to have to get some pretty special reviews and get huge promotion to get any kind of sales. For all the joy that the longlist brings to someone like Lisa Moore, it spells pretty dire news for novelists such as Woodward – especially as he’ll be vying for attention not only with the 13 but the non-eligible big, literary books of the autumn such as To The End of the Land by David Grossman, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Nemesis by Philip Roth.
So while I’m happy for David Mitchell, Tom McCarthy and Damon Galgut, I’m also feeling for the ones that could so easily have joined them. I just really hope that the Booker noise and bluster doesn’t push out books like Nourishment or even the new DBC Pierre (which is much better than you might think). It’d be good to see those books keep afloat even without the Booker life raft.