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Booker Prize goes to the outsider

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Will Gompertz | 09:19 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

"What are people saying about the Howard Jacobson novel?" Melvyn Bragg asked me recently after I had interviewed him about Ted Hughes' poem Last Letter. He was interested to know how his friend's chances were being rated among the media.

Howard Jacobson


"They're not," I replied, in as much as nobody is discussing his book, The Finkler Question. Around me all the chatter had been about Tom McCarthy's C. Was it really an experimental novel? What's so different about it? Wasn't his last book, Remainder both more experimental and, frankly better?

Or the talk was about Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America. Could it complete the hat-trick for the Australian-born, American-domiciled author? Or it was Emma Donoghue's Room and her use of a five-year-old voice to narrate her story.

And once those books had been discussed came Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room. Is it a memoir or a novel? And anyway, wasn't it published in three parts in the Paris Review, suggesting it is not one piece, but three and therefore ineligible for the Booker?

But of the Finkler Question - nothing. The bookies were equally uninterested, with one leading bookmaker having it down as the least favourite. Well, as we now know, they were wrong.

Howard Jacobson's book is the first comic novel to win the Man Booker Prize and, in doing so, goes some way to dispel criticism of the award that it is a "genre prize", interested only in literary fiction and sniffy about thriller writing, science fiction and the comic novel.

I understand it was a very tight decision with Peter Carey running Jacobson a very close second - the judges eventually voting 3/2 in the Englishman's favour after an hour-long deliberation.

Judging from his acceptance speech, winning it meant a lot to Howard Jacobson, as did only making it to the long-list on two previous occasions. Now I suspect he feels a sense of legitimacy for his style of writing, which could open the way for the Man Booker Prize to further broaden its stylistic horizons in future years.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Did you forget Vernon God Little or did it just not strike you as particularly funny?

  • Comment number 2.

    I thought 'The Old Devils' by Kingsley Amis was a comic novel too

  • Comment number 3.

    Oh Will! I know you had a late night last night but this piece is full of holes.

    First, to say that nobody was talking about The Finkler Question suggests you're not reading the right blogs!

    Second, The Finkler Question was not the first comic novel to win the prize. As Bogie55 points out, there was Vernon God Little in 2003, or why not go back further, to Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils (1986) or JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973)? Midnight's Children (1981), Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) and Amsterdam (1998) also had a fair amount of comedy in them.

    And finally, Remainder was not Tom McCarthy's last book. He published Tintin and the Secret of Literature in 2006, and Men in Space (his second novel) in 2007.

  • Comment number 4.

    John Self (nice username) The Siege of Krishnapur - a comic novel? Are you sure? I did this for O Level English and it didn't strike me as very funny.

    I would argue that some of our finest comic novelists, particularly David Lodge, have been unlucky not to win. I would also say that last year's winner, Wolf Hall, is the only Booker winner I have really enjoyed.


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