Tonight I attended the South Bank Centre’s reading from all six Booker shortlisted authors. It was wonderful seeing Ali Smith and Neel Mukherjee coming out to the stage arm in arm like old chums. When each author took their turn to read they all spoke about their high regard for the fellow authors on the shortlist and what a pleasure it's been doing the Booker circuit together. The event was chaired by Kirsty Wark. Thank god they got this wonderful journalist in to interview the authors and ask intelligent questions. In past years the interviews haven't always been conducted by such a fine person. Wark joked at the end of the even that the writers got along so well they would obviously go on to form an authors' commune. Before Ali Smith read she greeted every section of the audience and gave her sympathy to the sign language interpreter on stage as the opening of the artist's section of her novel was no doubt a challenge to interpret. They gave each other a cheeky thumbs up. It was wonderful hearing all authors read and give such thoughtful answers about their writing.
It’s felt like this year’s Booker has been more awash with controversy and descent than any other year I can remember. After the excitement last year of having a female author majority on the shortlist, this year’s prize received severe criticism by some for only including three women on the long list. The prize was also open to American authors for the first time this year – leading only to two Americans on the shortlist – but the prize was criticised for squeezing out most authors from other Commonwealth countries. I heard one of the directors of the prize counter this argument with the opinion that books from those other countries simply weren’t as strong as most of the British and American contenders. Many readers were frustrated when the long list came out this year that several titles weren’t published yet. Still other bloggers and people on twitter have dismissed the shortlisted titles as books they aren’t that interested in.
Personally, I still feel as excited as ever about the prize and here’s why. Early in the summer a friend recommended that I read Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others.” I did so and was bowled over by the strength and originality of this author’s writing. Reading about how this complex family network gradually imploded amidst the political strife of the time, I was wrapped in the individual stories of each striking character and the great symbolic weight of the house they inhabited. I wrote about the book here and remember thinking what a shame it was this book would probably pass by largely unnoticed. Given the subject matter, length and complexity of the novel it’s one that I was worried would slip between the cracks and go largely unnoticed. When the book was published I attended Mukherjee’s reading at the South Bank Centre in one of their smaller event spaces. The author spoke eloquently and everyone felt moved, but the audience was only half full. Now here he is on the Booker shortlist and tonight the largest South Bank auditorium was packed full listening to Mukherjee read. It’s the power of this prize to bring a talented literary voice like his to popular attention.
Certainly, plenty of other authors who weren’t long listed or even considered for the prize deserve attention as well. But at least the prize has given an author like Mukherjee a better chance to be heard. Although Ali Smith is an incredibly well-regarded author now, I’m certain her public appeal wouldn’t be as high if it weren’t for her inclusion on the Booker list in past years. That she’s been singled out again as worthy of being on the short list for her fantastically moving “How to Be Both” makes me feel that the well-read judges of the prize do care about quality in literature over public appeal. Although I greatly enjoyed reading Ferris and Fowler’s novels, I am really rooting for Mukherjee or Smith to win. It seems slightly ridiculous comparing the two as stylistically these books couldn’t be further apart from each other. But both are worthy of being read and, if I had to place a bet on who will win tomorrow, I would bet on Neel Mukherjee taking the prize. He is tipped as the favourite, but this time I think the bookies have it right.