Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Man Booker Prize Olympics, Part the Second (and Last)

In case you missed our first post, Read This / Eat That is commemorating the month and a half of furious reading that allows the Man Booker Prize judges to whittle their 13-book longlist into a manageable 6-book shortlist for the truly dedicated reader by September 10th (Pro-Tip: wait until October 15th and you only need to pick up one book).

But perhaps you weren’t sold on the value of the Man Booker Prize by our aptly picked Wiki quotes and our guessing the plots of recent nominees by their titles. Perhaps you shook your head and said, “I’ve never even HEARD of these books. How can they possibly have been nominated for an important literary award?” Or perhaps you simply decided that your enjoyment of Culture goes only so far as Downton Abbey.

Yeah . . . we’re kind of with you.

Especially because Booker Prize commendations are notoriously unreliable. Susan has completed 13 Booker nominees and winners, and her average rating for them is 3.3 out of 5. She's not the only dissatisfied reader: many of the Booker selections have average ratings in the low 3 range on Goodreads. Considering that the prize is awarded to the best novel of the year by a nation ever having belonged to the Commonwealth of Nations, this could mean that a third (!) of the world is publishing lackluster literature at its best.

Since we all know that literature has not died in the 45 years of the award’s existence, that theory is clearly wrong.

As far as we can tell, based on the generally uneven books given this prize, the chief enjoyment of the Man Booker may not be for readers to match wits with the judges and determine what the “best novel” eligible is; it is more pleasant to determine how the biases of the judges play out in declaring a winner. The Booker has a rich history of juicy controversy, from awarding only elitist books to awarding books that are not elitist enough. Our favorite scandal might be that Life of Pi received press for appropriating a basic plot outline from a Brazilian novel. The Daily Beast introduces some of the most public controversies associated with the prize, and a Poetry Foundation blog asserts that the Man Booker judges award books for using a combination of tropes.

The unfairness of the judging (point 6 in the Daily Beast piece) is so notorious (Susan has heard about shady quid pro quo from people familiar with a judge almost every time she’s brought the prize up in conversation—lesson being: don’t praise Bookers near your lit professors) that we can only guess that the Booker’s continued influence means that other awards have equally dubious judging.

They also most likely involve less posh award banquets:

Great Hall at Guildhall - c Janie Airey
Held at Guildhall, a 600-year-old building "designed to reflect the importance of London's ruling elite"

Man Booker dinner menu - c Janie Airey
Three forks at each place setting

Alison Moore and bookbinder Stephen Conway - c Janie Airey
Shortlisted author Alison Moore and bookbinder Stephen Conway in front of special handbound copies of the nominees

2012 judge Bharat Tandon - c Janie Airey
Black tie dress worn by 2012 judge Bharat Tandon

Martha Kearney, Dan Stevens, Victoria Hislop & Ian Hislop - c Janie Airey
Here we see proof that Cousin Matthew (also a judge) really could use a valet.
(Hint: Black tie dress involves a bow tie.)

And the ultimate sign of just how prestigious this prize is...

This year's longlist was in the form of a royal birth announcement.

Booker Prize Olympics, The Second Event

Let's meet the new members of the Booker family, Balderdash style. (This means that we initially looked at covers and sent each other our guesses of what the plots of the nominees were. Real answers are abridged from the official Man Booker synopses. Some of our guesses were very close to the real plot descriptions; some were just very close to each other. Play along; answers will be at the end!)

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki
  1. An unreliable narrator recounts in hallucinatory prose the strange events in her life that have always occurred after an encounter with the same mysterious (and perhaps imaginary) Japanese child.
  2. Ruth discovers a diary, possibly washed ashore from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl, and contains a mystery. In Tokyo a young woman navigates the challenges of modern life and family mysteries through a diary.
  3. A woman grieving for her sister recalls the stories they used to tell as children playing with their porcelain dolls. The doll’s shattered arm is a symbol.

Almost English - Charlotte Mendelson
  1. A semi-Hungarian Londoner tries to fit in at a traditional English public school, while her immigrant mother deals with her own painful secrets.
  2. An alien comes down to Earth with the mysterious ability to speak a language eerily similar to, but not quite, English. It takes on the appearance of a young girl and enrolls in a London public school in an attempt to master both the language and the nuances human interactions.
  3. An immigrant realizes how much she has changed since entering England as she fights to get her son into an elite public school.
NB: An English public school is traditionally a preparatory boarding school with extremely high tuition. Since most people would note that such a school is hardly a public option, hearing the expression is as confusing to American ears as potato crisp/chip/fry terminology or floor numbers.

Five Star Billionaire - Tash Aw
  1. A wealthy hotel owner learns true wealth is getting know some of his eccentric clients.
  2. The Five Star Billionaire's lessons for success unsettle the dynamics of four disparate lives in China.
  3. A man becomes involved in a deal with numerous publishing outlets wherein he is compensated for writing five star reviews of all of their books. Many years later, after he has made a fortune as a result of this agreement, he wonders whether compromising his integrity and taste was truly worth it.

Harvest - Jim Crace
  1. A man sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbors held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .
  2. In this horror story, a sheaf of wheat recounts his golden days waving in the Midwestern breeze, followed by the harrowing reaping of all of his friends and family members at the hands of cruel, heartless farmers and their scythes.
  3. Against a landscape of WWII bombings, a British farmer focuses on his crops in an attempt to ignore how much the world is changing around him.

The Kills - Richard House
  1. A military camp in Iraq is being converted for civilian use when there is an explosion and an attack on a regional government office. One worker has disappeared and over fifty million dollars of reconstruction funds are missing. As the camp tries to restore order and get revenge, there is a murder in Italy that reduplicates a well-known novel.
  2. A retrospective on the beloved musical group.
  3. A spy questions the morality of his latest mission and looks back on his long career of assassination.

The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahir
  1. A disgraced bank executive trades in his suit for some waders and sets out on a walkabout in the Everglades, befriending an alligator, a manatee, and a roseate spoonbill who help him begin to know himself and realize his true purpose in life.
  2. In India a communist zealot looks for peace after participating in armed assaults on wealthy patricians of his city.
  3. Two Indian brothers' lives diverge as one becomes drawn to the Communist movement and the other moves to America to pursue a PhD. The repercussions of one's actions will link their fates irrevocably and tragically together, reverberating across continents and seeping through the generations that follow.

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton
  1. A scholar researches a group of mercurial poetesses of the 1800s, but finds resistance in his field because he is male.
  2. A new immigrant in New Zealand is drawn into the mystery of a series of unsolved crimes that make a network of fates and fortunes as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
  3. A group of poets and artists, radical in their time but destined to be great in the estimation of future generations, start a movement providing lanterns to poor families in their city. In the present, a young scholar uncovers one of these lanterns and its connection to the murder of one of the artists, and must track down more to perhaps finally solve the mystery.

The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman - Eve Harris
  1. An Indian woman marries a Jewish man—hijinks ensue as the wedding day approaches and their two families attempt to connect with each other and understand a different culture.
  2. Buried secrets, fear and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice, as a young woman preparing for an arranged marriage learns what it means to be a Jewish wife.
  3. Hijinks and hilarity ensue as Chani plans a wedding with a Gentile.

The Spinning Heart - Donal Ryan
  1. A young boy befriends an old man in the park who is afflicted with a medical condition that causes his heart to literally spin in his chest. As the boy meets the man there for weekly chess lessons, he learns much about life, hardship, and the power of hope.
  2. After her husband dies, a woman finds solace in spinning his hairs with her own. But when she runs out of his hair, she wonders if her pastime was chiefly about her love for him, or her interest in textile arts. Could textile manipulation be a new direction for her life?
  3. In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.

The Testament of Mary - Colm Tóibín

  1. Mary Miller, a hopeless and despondent mother of 3 living in the suburbs of Anaheim, begins having seizures, claiming to receive visions and messages from God. As the media gets involved and people flock to see her in either pilgrimage or skepticism, her friends and children learn about the nature of belief, faith, and acceptance.

  2. A retelling of the crucifixion and early Christianity through the eyes of a postmodern Mary Magdalene.

  3. Living in exile and fear, Mary mother of Jesus tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son's brutal death. She slowly emerges as a figure of immense moral stature as well as a woman from history rendered now as fully human.

TransAtlantic - Colum McCann

  1. Personal stories of four generations of Irish women are woven together to explore the fine line between what is real and what is imagined, and the tangled skein of connections that make up our lives.
  2. In the 1930s, a man invents a new mode of transportation—basically a spinning swing ride from a carnival, but it spins fast enough to create its own gravity and propulsion. In order to test it out and get people to take the invention seriously, he enlists a mismatched group of people to help him navigate it across the Atlantic.
  3. An Irish family’s brief visit to America is derailed by World War, and they must reluctantly make their home in the shadow of the endless carnival of Coney Island.

Unexploded - Alison MacLeod

  1. Living near a demilitarized zone, a woman is inured to finding undetonated bombs as she walks. But her frustration in her marriage leaves her increasingly mentally unstable.
  2. A woman visiting Normandy with her family in the 1950s comes across undetonated ordnance left over from WWII. While she ponders what to do with it, secrets from the war accelerate the deterioration of her family life.
  3. In 1940 Brighton a woman struggles to fall in with the war effort and the constraints of her role in life. Her developing relationship with a German-Jewish prisoner of war will shatter the structures on which her life, her family and her community rest.

We Need New Names - NoViolet Bulawayo
  1. Six young girls live in a shanty, and dream of escaping to America, Dubai or Europe. But if they do escape, will these new lands bring them everything they wish for?
  2. African emigrants living in London struggle to fit in with their neighbors.
  3. Two young graffiti artists trying to parlay their skills into the NYC art scene decide to invent more exciting names and pasts for themselves to ease their acceptance into the art world.

Based on these synopses, which books do you see making the shortlist next week? Do you have a guess about the winner yet?

We, naturally, have made uninformed opinions about the shortlist and winner.

Alyssa: We Need New Names, TransAtlantic, The Spinning Heart, The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann, The Lowland, A Tale for the Time Being
Winner The Lowland

Susan:A Tale for the Time Being, The Spinning Heart, TransAtlantic, Unexploded, The Lowland, Harvest
Winner Harvest

Balderdash answers!
A Tale for the Time Being, 2
Almost English, 1
Five Star Billionaire, 2
Harvest, 1
The Kills, 1
The Lowland, 3
The Luminaries, 2
The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann, 2
The Spinning Heart, 3
The Testament of Mary, 3
TranAtlantic, 1
Unexploded, 3
We Need New Names, 1

For those of you keeping track of our Olympics points, Alyssa won this event with her inventive and elaborate plot descriptions. (Especially compared to Susan's typically short and literal guesses.) From corrupt publishing in her version of Five Star Billionaire to the amazing self-propelled carnival swing in TransAtlantic, it's likely that Alyssa's plot descriptions would be more fun to read than the actual shortlisted books. Combined with her score from event 1, Alyssa is the uncontested winner of the Read This / Eat That Man Booker Prize Olympics! We expect to get cereal endorsement offers any minute now . . .


Alyssa L. said...

I like that they have a sense of humor with the longlist/royal birth announcement. And holy crap, I need to get invited to that party, if only for hand-bound books, a shiny program, and a chance for a photo-op with cousin Matthew (he still looks very early 20th-c. to me--I am convinced he is a time traveler)! Alas, as an American citizen, it is not to be...not until 2015, at least, when I think they're doing the next International Booker. As for the books themselves, these ones sound interesting enough that I might be tempted to try them out at some point in time: A Tale for the Time Being, Five Star Billionaire, Harvest, TransAtlantic, and We Need New Names. Everyone seems to adore Jhumpa Lahiri, too, so even though I never read the Namesake I could be talked into trying out the Lowland (although I really want to write the Everglades version!).

Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis said...

You guys are crazy. ;-) I have loved your Booker posts!

Alyssa L. said...

Yay, thank you! We are always glad to amuse someone other than just ourselves. :) I can't wait to see which ones are actually shortlisted!

Feliza said...

Generally speaking, I almost NEVER use the average Goodreads rating to judge ANYTHING - usually they don't reflect how I'd think of the book or judge it. Also, I've noticed any kind of literary fiction gets kind of low ratings - literary fiction usually focuses a lot on structure instead of storyline, which most reviewers on GR don't seem to like.

On the other hand, I can totally appreciate the idea of Hollywood-level posh parties for book awards.

Susan said...

We had fun making them! I hope you've been playing along at home.

Alyssa L. said...

Yeah, I agree that Goodreads ratings are more often than not completely wonky. For books that I think deserve all the stars in the world, there seems to be a low average rating (my example was going to be Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief, but the rating seems to have gone up to 3.99 since I last looked!); books that I think were completely poorly written get great ratings (such as Jennifer A. Nielsen's The False Prince, which managed 4.24 stars); and yet other times the rating seems to line up pretty well with my own opinion of a book (no example comes to mind, but I'm sure it's happened once or twice). Since the general Goodreads opinion is not usually reliable, I tend to skim the written reviews to see if the stuff that people like/dislike about a book are things I know that I would like/dislike. In the end though, if a book sounds interesting to me, I read it and decide for myself. Also, book Oscars--how great would that be?! Red carpet, champagne, awards for books...it'd be great. :)

Susan said...

Goodreads has an extreme bias towards easy to digest books (the rating for Throne of Glass is an unfathomably high 4.15, for example), and a decent bias towards inflating ratings in general. That being said, I think the people rating the Booker nominees and winners on Goodreads are not likely to be giving them low ratings just because the books focus on structure instead of storyline. Except for the books that have made it onto school reading lists and into movies, (Atonement, Life of Pi, Midnight's Children, Ishiguro, etc.), I would think that people who don't like literary fiction aren't going to pick them up so frequently that the ratings come from their failing to live up to genre fiction plot standards.

I threw out my notes from the Booker posts, but I know that my problems with the Ishiguro books are about Ishiguro's fascination with having a dialogue dump in the second to last chapter or so (it happens in both). I cannot think of a more disappointing way to wrap up a story than having everything explained in conversation at the end of a journey. I didn't really care about any of the characters in Never Let Me Go, and the science fiction elements were not well thought-out, but those problems were nothing compared to Ishiguro abandoning his tight style for that chapter of answer-giving.

But I think "literary novels" are overrated in general. When you sacrifice the recognizable elements of a novel (plot and character development) you do make a point with the style that you're using, but your point is dependent on your readers encountering mostly traditional novels. It's the same as walking through an art museum. An abstract expressionist piece essentially works as a reaction to more naturalistic art. If, however, the viewer has seen another fifty such canvases in the last hour, the impact of that rather blank canvas is low, and the abstract style eventually becomes more of a gimmick than a meaningful artistic effect.

The acclaimed writers of the 20th century seem to have exhausted the effects of unreliable narration, time shifts, stream of consciousness, and unusual punctuation. If prize committees continue to reward books for simply using some combination of those effects and don't put some emphasis again on story-telling, is that advancing literature beyond what Woolf and Joyce have done?

It's disturbing to me that people were upset that the 2011 Booker longlist was "too accessible." If the "literary novel" stays unaccessible and stagnant, the novels classified that way risk being ignored in general conversations about literature. (And they have no influence on the vast majority of the population, which seems like an incredibly sad fate for books that represent the best the British Commonwealth past and present have to offer.)

I do like the look of the Booker banquet though!

Feliza said...

That's definitely how I feel - but people aren't rating on quality, they're rating on whether or not they liked it. Kind of a People's Choice Awards for books, right?

Although - People's Choice Awards as compared to Oscars-level class. It really WOULD be cool to attend.

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