BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Archives for September 2009

All aboard the Booker express

Razia Iqbal | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 8 September 2009

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So it's September, which means this year's Booker train is chugging along towards its destination, where it arrives in early October with the declaration that one author is the "best".

Today's stop was the announcement of the six shortlisted books. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has immediately been cast as the odds-on favourite by two major bookies, both of whom were represented at the press conference. This in itself is interesting and part of the whole marketing machine behind the Man Booker prize. More of that in a moment...

First though, the shortlist (there's a rough guide to the six nominees on this page). Chairman of the judges, James Naughtie, declared it the strongest line-up for the last couple of decades - a bold claim indeed.

Are these things only subjective? Would a different panel have come up with a completely different shortlist?

One of the judges, Lucasta Miller, told me that something happens when you read 132 books one after the other. You learn how to tell what works and what doesn't, the levels of virtuosity at work, and so forth. I'm sure there is truth in that, but I read a lot of fiction, too, and I would have included both William Trevor's Love and Summer, as well as Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, over Sarah Waters' book. Hers is a page turner, but I found little in it that was profound.

That's just my view, but it is equally legitimate to the one the judges took. Except their opinions will change the fortunes of the writers. The bookies, too, play their part. As does the media.

Is there any value in book prizes, then, beyond the razzle dazzle of long lists, shortlists, shop displays, special offers, radio interviews and the eventual prize-giving? How many of previous winners will last the test of time?

So many books are published each year that it could be argued that such prizes act as a guide for readers bewildered by the choices out there. But, as someone who loved the Trevor and the Toibin, I would want everyone who cares about stories which leave you ever-so-slightly altered to read them.

The prize industry is an elaborate game, and as with any game, it can be a lot of fun.

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