Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
5th – the release of The Sisters Brothers, starring John C Riley and Joaquin Phoenix, based on Patrick deWitt’s Booker shortlisted novel. And Pet Sematary, the second version of Stephen King’s horror tale.
21st – Bicentenary of the start of Keats’s “great year”, including most of his Odes.
22nd – Fifty years since Booker Prize first awarded in 1969 to PH Newby.
23rd – 300th anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, often called the first novel in English
Most readers have heard of the Booker Prize and, it is said to lead readers to books in numbers significant enough for it to still be important to publishers and writers. However, a deliciously wry Guardian article by Rachel Cooke in 2018 cited an off the record bookseller who suggested that the shortlist was not the draw it once was and had stopped being a good indicator of readers choices. The article suggests the prize has ‘lost its lustre’ and notes the withdrawal of sponsors from book prizes in recent years. It is clear that the breadth, remit and aims of this prize – and perhaps others – may be in something of a flux at the moment. Nevertheless, the Booker Prize has a significant and important history of promoting and fostering literature and encouraging reading of high-quality fiction.
My relationship with the Booker has been up and down. I have actively worked at improving the quality of my (fiction) reading choices over the years (I have trash fiction taste if left to my own devices) via selecting from noted book prize shortlists, including the Booker. Last year I adored the winner – Anna Burns Milkman – funny and astutely observed but read another which I thought was absolutely awful – could not even imagine why it had been published, let alone nominated or shortlisted. 2017 was a better year. Of the shortlisted six, I read one I loved – Ali Smith’s Autumn, and three others I thought were OK – the latter three did not strike me as magnificent, but I did finish them. I had a similar experience in 2016. Every year I have the hope for blow-my-socks-off reading only to feel somewhat let down. I ponder on why this is. Although an unashamed fan of crime fiction, I read a lot and broadly. I am a committed reader and active in trying to expand my reading horizons and tastes and yet I never understand the selections or judge based outcomes. I must be missing something. I only wish I knew what it was.
On the upside, In this 50th year I note the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has won the special ‘Golden Man Booker Prize’ for the best work of fiction in the last five decades of the prize. I loved this book. Well done to Mr Ondaatje – a worthy winner.
Note: PH Newby won for his novel Something to Answer For. The book kept me reading to the end though it was a confusing and challenging read at times. I am not sure whether Newby is a good recommendation for the prize or vice versa.