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'Lost' Man Booker Prize: Over to you

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Will Gompertz | 15:05 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

The press release says: "The Lost Man Booker Prize Shortlist Announced". Two bullet points follow: novels that have stood the test of time and a shortlist that is being thrown open to a public vote. It is a publicity stunt. Hyperbole and factual information conflate like a candy-covered oatcake. It doesn't matter; it's a good idea.

Nina Bawden and Muriel SparkThe Booker Prize started in 1969. The original concept was to award a prize to the best fiction book written by a Commonwealth citizen in the previous year, 1968. Then, in 1971, the rules were changed. It was decided the prize would be awarded to the best book of the current year. So 1970 missed out.

Interesting hooks like this anomaly are often spotted by a rookie PR with fresh eyes to see that the trees can be made into column inches. Insight leads to action.

Three judges were appointed to each choose two books from 1970 to create a shortlist of six. They are Rachel Cooke, Katie Derham and Tobias Hill. The main criterion for their selection was being born around 1970. A corny conceit - but, again, it doesn't really matter. Here's what they have chosen and why.

The Birds on the Trees by Nina BawdenThe Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden
chosen by Rachel Cooke:

"I really hoped we would find a domestic novel set in 1970 by a woman writer because, after all, it was the year both The Female Eunuch and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics were published.
"I suppose you could say I wanted a thwarted woman (or a liberated one)!
"Anyway, this novel fits the bill, and is also a beautiful, well-written-one. This is behind-the-eyeballs writing."

Troubles by JG FarrellTroubles by JG Farrell
chosen by Rachel Cooke:

"I love Troubles. I think it's Farrell's masterpiece, for all that the Siege of Krishnapur is better known.
"The rumblings of what will eventually become the Irish civil war can be heard, and in the wider world, the Empire is in crisis.
"Trouble is brilliant: funny, sad, original, prescient, wholly eccentric, elegantly written. Fascinating ending. I'd love this book to win."

Fire from Heaven by Mary RenaultFire from Heaven by Mary Renault
chosen by Katie Derham:

"The story of Alexander before he became Great. This is Alexander the child prodigy, and Alexander the teenager.
"Slightly sulky and confused about his parents, but already charismatic and beautiful, he wins unswerving loyalty from friends, lovers, armies, entire nations and the vast readership of Mary Renault's spectacular trilogy."

The Bay of Noon by Shirley HazzardThe Boy of Noon by Shirley Hazzard
chosen by Katie Derham:

"A quiet, rather beautiful and poignant coming-of-age story of a displaced young English woman, Jenny, and at the same time a love letter to Naples, the colourful, fractured, decrepit and dysfunctional city she finds herself in just after the Second World War.
"It's thoughtful and observant; a lovely read."

The Driver's Seat by Muriel SparkThe Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark
chosen by Tobias Hill:

"Slim and cruel, jarring and sexy, Spark's tenth novel is the mirror image of its protagonist, Lise, who flies abroad in search of 'A man of her type'.
"In a way that few novels do, The Driver's Seat strives for perfection, and perhaps achieves it: Spark's prose is as muscular and lucid as poetry, and Lise's narrative journey into nihilistic darkness as spare and memorable as those of the best short stories."

The Vivisector by Patrick WhiteThe Vivisector by Patrick White
chosen by Tobias Hill:

"Hurtle Duffield is White's vivisector, a painter in love with the beauty in people, but never with the people themselves.
"Ambitious in its exploration of the life of a genius, The Vivisector considers the paradox of artistic coldness; how can the artist love beauty, and yet be so cold and clinical in the exercise of that love?"

Now the public has four weeks to decide which of the six will be voted Lost. We'll never know, of course, if this would even have been the shortlist had there been a Booker for the books of 1970 - but that's not really the point. What we do know is that the event has encouraged readers to look again at a period in the recent past, at the novel before the era of McEwan, Rushdie or Amis.

It's interesting to let your imagination get captured by an event that is not obsessed with newness. Similar thought-experiments are possible: who might have won the Turner Prize in the 18th Century?

I asked Nina Bawden how her book of forty years ago might be seen in 2010. "Good writing is good writing," she said. "It doesn't matter when it was written."


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